'Press freedom is dead' if Ampatuans not convicted for massacre – lawyer

MANILA, Philippines – After 10 years, a local court is expected to hand down its verdict on the world's deadliest attack on journalists that occurred in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. And for the lawyer of the victims, no conviction would mean that press freedom in the Philippines is dead.

"If there will be no conviction, I am sorry to say that press freedom in the Philippines is dead," said lawyer Nena Santos, who served as private prosecutor in the case from the time it was filed in court.

"(Because that would mean) impunity, because if nobody gets to jail for killing media people, where is democracy, where is press freedom?" Santos told reporters on Tuesday, November 5.

Santos said she expects a guilty verdict at least for the principal accused – brothers Andal Jr, Zaldy and Sajid Ampatuan, sons of the alleged mastermind Andal Ampatuan Sr.

Clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr died on July 17, 2015 while Andal Jr and Zaldy are in jail.

Sajid is out on bail and is mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha town in Maguindanao.

"We are not sure of the 100% (all 197 accused), but we are sure that the principal accused will be convicted," said Santos, who represents 38 of the 58 people who died in the massacre on November 23, 2009.

The massacre is recorded as the deadliest single-day attack on journalists in the world and the worst election-related case of violence in recent Philippine history.

Of the 58 people who died, 32 were journalists who joined the convoy of the camp of then-Buluan vice mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu, who had sent his wife and supporters to file his candidacy for governor against Andal Ampatuan Jr.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had earlier said he was also confident that the prosecution would secure "a just decision at least as against the principal accused."

Witnesses

The prosecution scored a win recently when Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 denied Andal Jr's motion to reopen trial.

Andal Jr's lawyer previously said they got information that one of the star witnesses, former Vice Mayor Sukarno Badal, had intended to recant his testimony. But the prosecution brought Badal to court to personally tell Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes that he will stand by his story.

Badal, a suspect-turned-state witness, testified seeing Andal Jr shooting some of the victims on November 23, 2009.

Santos said that while many of the witnesses were either killed or withdrew from the case because of "offers," she considers it a high point in the trial that Badal stood firm in his testimony. "Yung high points ay yung hindi, yung major witnesses hindi nag-recant (The high points are when the major witnesses did not recant)," said Santos.

Another key witness is Lakmodin Saliao who claimed to be with Andal Sr when the father and son talked on the phone to discuss the murder. 

Santos said she has received "many" death threats throughout the course of the trial, but that she is more concerned with the welfare of the witnesses who have given up their lives for the case.

"At the onset, they were already told how it will be. This was a life-changing event. Once they testify, they will forever be haunted by the Ampatuans and the other accused. It's not only the Ampatuans but many more, [as] there are 197 accused running after them," said Santos

"I just have one focus: just handle the case to the best of my ability without any favor or without... falling into any offers of money, influence, position until this case is finally resolved," said Santos.

Continuing influence of the Ampatuans

Sajid paid P11.6-million bail in March 2015, after Judge Solis-Reyes ruled there was no strong evidence to keep him in detention.

Solis-Reyes said Sajid Islam was only present in the meetings but did not participate in alleged discussions that led to the massacre.

Sajid ran for Shariff Aguak mayor in 2016 but lost. In the 2019 midterm elections, he ran and won as mayor of another town, Shariff Saydona Mustapha.

Santos said Sajid in power definitely had an effect on some of the witnesses.

"(A witness) was even threatened and he reported to me that Sajid is looking for him. I just told him to stay away and be safe," said Santos.

Sajid is facing dozens of corruption charges for ghost projects in Maguindanao, also in 2009, when he was the governor there. A division in the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan convicted Sajid over a set of those charges and sentenced him to reclusion perpetua or a maximum of 40 years in prison, which is appealable all the way to the Supreme Court.

A separate division handling the charges suspended him for 90 days last October. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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