Opinion: A Filipino Warlord's Death Delays Justice

On July 17, Andal Ampatuan Sr, a brutal, ugly warlord from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, died at age 74 of liver cancer in a Manila hospital. He was the architect of the murder of 58 people, 32 of them journalists, on Nov. 23, 2009, although over the next five and a half years the courts never had a chance to prove it.

Ampatuan’s death is news enough. But it is what it says about the Philippine judicial system, in which delays and impunity deny justice to far more people than the families of the dead. By the estimate of prosecution lawyer Harry Roque, the trial could last more than a century. He was not kidding. The Philippines, according to the World Impunity Index, has “earned the dubious distinction of having the worst record in bringing wrongdoers to justice” of 59 countries studied by the Impunity and Justice Research Center of the Universidad de las Americas, a private university in Puebla, Mexico. Others among the top five were Mexico, Colombia, Turkey and Russia in that order.

Five and a half years after Ampatuan’s gunmen ambushed a convoy of reporters and political activists on their way to file papers for a candidate challenging Ampatuan’s son for the then-forthcoming 2010 gubernatorial election, the court hearing the case is still stuck -- handling the bail petitions of the accused. Actual testimony on the killings themselves has yet to begin and appears far down the future.

The story began well before the 58 victims began their voyage to file the certificate for Esmael Mangudadatu to run against Ampatuan’s son, and that story tells a lot about why, in addition to the inefficient Filipino court system, the case has wound along so slowly, even in a specially-convened court. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, it began when then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created the conditions that led to the massacre, some of the victims shot in the genitals before being murdered. As many as 100 armed men stopped the convoy and ordered it to drive 2-1/2 km to a seclude area, where the men and women were lined up at the site and shot, many raped first, beginning with Mangudadatu’s female relatives. Eventually, 183 suspects were identified as involved in the planning and the actual murders.

Arroyo, according to the ICG report, deliberately nurtured a ruthless warlord in exchange for votes. In her close 2004 presidential reelection campaign over Fernando Poe Jr, Ampatuan appears to have played a major role in fraudulently engineering her victory.

"Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launchers and state-of-the-art assault rifles,” the report said. “They controlled the police, the judiciary, and the local election commission." In addition, laws and regulations passed by the central government permitting the arming and funding of private armies allowed the Ampatuans to exercise absolute authority over the state.

The massacre, the report said, was not the result of a longstanding feud. "To call it a feud is to diminish the role played by Manila in building up a political machine and allowing it to exert absolute authority over a huge swathe of central Mindanao in exchange for votes at election time and military help against insurgents. This was not the inevitable result of historic hatreds, but of the deliberate nurturing of a local warlord, Andal Ampatuan Sr, who was allowed to indulge his greed and ambition in exchange for political loyalty."

The report was prescient, saying “It remains to be seen how the murder and rebellion charges will fare in court, but the prospects do not look good, as the fear of the Ampatuans extends even to Manila. For the safety of all concerned, the Supreme Court authorized that criminal proceedings against Andal Jr be moved to Manila. On 16 December, however, the judge assigned the case stepped down, citing concerns for the security of his family and staff. Another judge has been given the case, but many in the Philippines are skeptical that justice will ever be served.”

Until they were outed by the press, the suspects were housed in air-conditioned cells with television sets and other amenities. Sajid Ampatuan, Andal’s son and a key defendant was freed on bail in January after paying a bond of PHO11.6 million [US$262,000].

“While the special court has taken steps to expedite the process, such as assigning another judge to handle administrative matters, these have proven to be insufficient. Even worse, several witnesses have been killed or harassed,” wrote Carlos Conde, the Philippines representative for Human Rights Watch. Others have been frightened into silence.

Ampatuan’s death, Conde said, “deprived the Philippine justice system of his ever having to answer for his alleged role in the murder of 58 people. More than five years since the massacre, the case is in judicial limbo, bogged down by numerous procedural challenges filed by the Ampatuans’ lawyers and by the sheer number of accused and witnesses,” Human Rights Watch charged. “While the special court has taken steps to expedite the process, such as assigning another judge to handle administrative matters, these have proven to be insufficient. Many defendants remain, including other Ampatuan family members linked to the planning of the crime."

“Ampatuan’s death should send a strong message to the Philippine government that justice demands a judicial process that is both fair and tolerates no unnecessary delays,” Conde wrote.