Five years after a horrific massacre in the Philippines, the wheels of justice are turning very slowly.
It was perhaps the greatest crime in the history of journalism. Five years ago 58 people, 32 of them employed in the media, were horribly tortured and executed by gunmen who took their orders from a grimy, precocious warlord named Andal Ampatuan and his bullying son.
Between them, father and son ran a Muslim clan that committed the Maguindanao massacre, on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, with Andal Jnr. taking an active role in the slaughter. The horrific injuries inflicted on the victims – including women – before their deaths was a testament to the barbarity of this family.
Among the victims were local politicians affiliated with vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Manguadadatu, their convoy ambushed while on their way to register candidacy papers for pending provincial elections.
They had been warned not to by the Ampatuans, whose power base had been forged under successive presidents, most notably Gloria Arroyo and her husband Mike, renowned for their dislike of journalists.
This much has been confirmed by Zamzamin Ampatuan, nephew of Andal Snr and mayor of Rajah Buayan, who recently told Fairfax Media in Australia that his family had amassed too much power courtesy of politicians obsessed with obtaining bloc votes in national elections.
This was particularly the case with the Arroyos in 2004 and in mid-term elections for the Philippine Senate in 2007, when Maguindanao was the only province to return a 12-0 win for Arroyo’s Senate slate.
“It was an obsession that bred violence,” says Zamzamin. “Everyone, including myself, should have seen that when the intimidation got to such a level, bad things can happen. When you have so much power you believe that whatever you do, no matter how violent, you will get away with it.”
Since the massacre on November 23, 2009, the authorities have attempted to deliver some form of justice, but it has been slow in coming. In all, 197 people have been accused of having a role in the massacre, seven of them members of the Ampatuan clan. One hundred have yet to be located.
In March, prosecutors of 28 key suspects, among them four Amaptuans, concluded their case. Another 76 cases are still being heard.
Judges and lawyers have been roundly rebuked for working at a ridiculously slow pace, with President Begnino Aquino unable to deliver on promises to find justice for the victims and their families.
Journalists, media groups, and human rights organizations have sharply criticized the court for not allowing live broadcasts. Meanwhile, allegations of public prosecutors accepting bribes paid by the Ampatuans have surfaced, although no evidence has been found to support the claim.
Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes expects to hand down at least a partial verdict by 2016, before Aquino is due to step down as president.
Members of the Amapatuans say they have also been targeted in a spate of recent attacks and are crying poor. Their defense is preparing their case and will argue the family was “framed” and that the legal costs have sent them to the poor house.
One lawyer has claimed they were forced to sell a car and pawn a Rolex “to tide them over.”
Rowena Paraan, from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, left no doubt where she thought the blame belonged, amid commemorations marking the fifth anniversary of the massacre and the start of a mission by the International Federation of Journalists.
“Media killings reflect what is happening in the bigger society. We need to address the system of political patronage, of warlordism and the culture of impunity,” Paraan said.
“These killings happen because you have the likes of the Ampatuans who can remain in power for so many years because they are tolerated, even encouraged, by national leaders who rely on these warlords for votes during elections,” she added.