Sajid Ampatuan acquitted despite 'knowledge of murder plot'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan was acquitted of 57 counts of murder despite having "prior knowledge of the murder plot," the 761-ruling of Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes said.

"For failure of the prosecution to discharge its duty, this court has no other option except to exonerate him from the crimes charged," said Reyes in the most-awaited decision promulgated on Thursday, December 19.

Datu Sajid Islam escaped the sentence imposed on his brothers Datu Andal Jr, Zaldy, and Anwar Sr, who were found guilty of plotting and carrying out the murder of 58 people, 32 of them journalists.

The conviction was only for 57 counts because Reyes excluded journalist Reynaldo Momay, whose body was never found.

Presence in meetings

Reyes ruled that meetings indeed happened before the massacre on November 23, 2009. (READ: DOJ: Acquittals in Ampatuan massacre 'expected')

Reyes acknowledged Sajid's presence in the meetings on July 20, November 17, and November 22 "to further discuss the plot."

"However, no one among the eyewitnesses had testified and pointed to them as being present at the crime site on November 23, 2009," said Reyes.

For this, Reyes categorized Sajid and Datu Akmad "Tato" Ampatuan as "the third class of accused – those who had prior knowledge of the murder plot but did not at all perform any overt act."

Akmad was acquitted with Sajid, along with 53 others.

Sajid was also found to have received visitors at his house a day after the massacre to discuss "how to save the backhoe."

A witness called Anok Akil said Sajid was drawing a narrative where they would say the backhoe was in the massacre site before the incident. Akil said that Sajid later gave him P2,000 to buy fish.

That fact "is of no moment," said Reyes.

"This cannot be considered an overt act indicative of conspiracy with his brothers and cohorts," said Reyes.

Not even an accessory to the crimes?

Although witnesses said Sajid participated in the post-massacre meeting on how to spin the story of the backhoe, he was still acquitted. The backhoe operator himself was, however, convicted as an accessory to the crime.

Backhoe operator Bong Andal was sentenced to 6-10 years for being an accessory to the crime because, according to Judge Reyes, he "buried the dead bodies of the 57 victims and neglected to inform the authorities about it."

Reyes convicted 15 other individuals for the 57 murders but sentenced them to only 6 to 10 years for being accessory to crimes.

These were mostly police officers seen at the Malating checkpoint.

Checkpoints were set up along the highway, where armed men were deployed to carry out the plan of blocking the convoy of then Maguindanao governor aspirant Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu.

These policemen were categorized by Reyes as "those who had no prior knowledge of the murder plot but were still identified or had performed overt acts."

Sajid was acquitted because Reyes said conspiracy "cannot be based on mere conjectures but must be established as a fact."

"The same degree of proof required to establish the crime is necessary to support a finding of the presence of conspiracy, that is, it must be shown to exist as clearly and convincingly as the commission of the offense itself. An assumed intimacy is of no legal bearing inasmuch as conspiracy transcends companionship," said Reyes. – 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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