The Maguindanao Massacre Revisited

One year ago today, 57 people including 32 journalists and other media professionals were murdered in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao. It was the biggest massacre of journalists anywhere, at any time in history, according to press organizations.

It is questionable, however, if anybody will actually end up being punished for an astonishingly brutal action in which the journalists and others belonging to a convoy carrying the wife and two sisters of a local political candidate were marched out onto a hillside and shot down.

The trial, involving 196 defendants who allegedly were ordered to intercept

a convoy carrying the wife and sisters of Esmael Mangagudadatu to register him as a political opponent of Governor Andal Ampatuan and kill everybody in it, is expected to last for years. At least 700 people are to be called to testify, including 200 prosecution witnesses and 300 defense witnesses.

The lead defendant is the Ampatuans' son and the former mayor of Datu Unsay, Andal Ampatuan Jr. The trial has been called "a major test for the rule of law and the fight against impunity in the Philippines" by Reporters Without Borders. Indeed. After Iraq, the Philippines remains the second-most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 68 have been killed in the Philippines. Of those, 63 have never been solved. Two more – Joselito Agustin of DZJZ and Desidario Camangyan of Sunrise FM – two radio stations – have been killed so far in 2010. Thus if history is any guide, the Ampatuans and their fellow defendants may well walk free. The government in Manila has been roundly criticized for allowing Andal Jr. the luxury of an air-conditioned cell with many comforts.

Despite the shocking nature of the Maguindanao massacre, a year later, " the Ampatuans remain a powerful and dangerous force with which to be reckoned. For more than two decades, the Ampatuans operated unchecked by the national police, the military, and the Department of Justice," according to a report titled "They Own the People" which was released last week by Human Rights Watch.

According to the report, the Ampatuan private army is one of as many as 100 scattered around the Philippines. The armies have been condoned by successive national governments as a method of perpetuating themselves in power. However, the report notes, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo allowed them to flourish as never before. Other reports have noted that in particular that voter fraud in Maguindanao played a major role in her second victory as president.

"Despite an initial flurry of activity after the November 23 killings, including some arrests, 126 suspects remain at large and the government's prosecution remains woefully slow and limited," the report continued. "Senior police and military officers who failed to act upon knowledge of Ampatuan crimes have not been investigated; investigations into the source of the family's weapons have lacked transparency and independence; and the national institutions responsible for accountability—the Justice Department, the Ombudsman's Office, and the Commission on Human Rights—have done nothing significant to address the situation. "What can we do?" asked one police officer. "This is an influential family."

Indeed, according to the report, the Ampatuan family and the private army they controlled have continued to kill almost with impunity. One member of the family's militia told Human Rights Watch he had killed a witness to the shootings with a grenade launcher. After he gave is statement, the militiaman was shot and killed on June 14, while awaiting inclusion in the government witness program.

"Amidst fears the perpetrators of this atrocity may escape justice, family, colleagues and media and human rights groups both in the Philippines and around the world are mobilizing to ensure the world remembers what happened," wrote Elisabeth Witchell, an impunity campaign consultant for the Committee to protect Journalists.

In an investigation titled Impunity On Trial in the Philippines and written by Shawn A. Crispin, the CPJ "has uncovered a disturbing repetition of the pattern seen in previous cases, one that has allowed the killers of Philippine journalists to go free time and again. Even as the Maguindanao case is being described by a top government official as a "litmus test" for the judicial system, CPJ has found that victims' families have been approached with bribes, witnesses have been intimidated and subjected to deadly violence, law enforcement officials have failed to coordinate activities, and forensic investigations have been deeply flawed."

President Benigno Aquino III, who was elected to replace Arroyo in June, has asked the court to allow live media coverage of the trial, saying that live media coverage of the Maguindanao massacre hearing would "be educational for the rest of the people to find out what actually transpired, the reasons behind the atrocity, and what steps should be done to prevent the same from happening again." Aquino also issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 23 as a National Day of Remembrance for the victims.

"I call on the Filipino people to solemnly bear the departed in their thoughts, and for all the citizens from all walks of life to commit, in solidarity, to the quest for justice for the victims," Aquino said.