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Outrage over release of Philippine massacre suspect

Man allowed to attend wedding as Catholic official says criminal justice system is biased in favor of rich and powerful

Bong Sarmiento, General Santos City

Bong Sarmiento, General Santos City

Published: August 24, 2018 10:01 AM GMT

Updated: August 24, 2018 10:09 AM GMT

Outrage over release of Philippine massacre suspect

Relatives and friends of journalists killed in the 2009 massacre in Maguindanao march in Manila in 2016 to mark the seventh anniversary of the crime. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

The temporary freedom granted by a Philippine court to the main suspect in the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, has caused uproar among families of victims, media groups and even the presidential palace.

President Rodrigo Duterte was reportedly dismayed over the release from jail of Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the principal accused in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, to attend his daughter's wedding on Aug. 21.

"We are dismayed it was granted," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who once served as a lawyer for some victims' families. He said state prosecutors and Duterte opposed the motion of Ampatuan's lawyers.

Ampatuan is facing multiple murder charges in connection with the massacre in Maguindanao province in the worst election-related violence in the country's recent history and the single deadliest attack against media workers in the world.

"Our hearts are bleeding and we are very angry at what the court did ... We are still grieving the brutal deaths of our beloved nine years after it was committed," said Grace Morales, spokeswoman of Justice Now, an association of families of the slain media workers.

Morales said the decision to give Ampatuan temporary freedom was an "unacceptable insult" to victims and their families.

An official of the Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care of the Catholic Church said the incident "once more shows that our criminal justice system is biased in favor of the rich and powerful."

Executive secretary Rodolfo Diamante said "such justice is selective and not restorative."

Mindanao Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz expressed sadness that victims of the massacre are not given justice, adding that "their souls continue to cry for justice."

The prelate said "the wheels of justice in our country move at a snail's pace and that contributes more pain to the victims."

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Passionist priest Rey Carvyn Ondap, executive director of the Passionist Center for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in General Santos City, said the temporary liberty granted to Ampatuan was "a clear manifestation of the social cancer in the country."

The priest said political influence was behind the decision in what has been dubbed the "trial of the century."

"We call for moral chemotherapy on our concerned government agencies, otherwise the judicial and political paralysis will continue," said the priest.

Journalist Joseph Jubelag, who escaped death by not joining the convoy in 2009, said the privilege granted to Ampatuan will now serve as a precedent for the other suspects to follow.

Ampatuan's father, former governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. of Maguindanao, and his brother, Andal Ampatuan Jr., a former town mayor, were also implicated as principal suspects. The elder Ampatuan died in custody due to illness.

Armed men allegedly led by Andal Ampatuan Jr. stopped and led a convoy of journalists and political opponents of the family to a remote area where they were shot.

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