Court systems failing in Ampatuan trial – HRW researcher

Nov. 22, 2013

Davao Today

DAVAO CITY — Not even a special court, or a presidential promise had speed up justice for families waiting for four years on the pace of the trial on the suspects of the Ampatuan Massacre, the Philippine researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch researcher in the Philippines, said prosecution lawyers had told him earlier that the case has only completed 20% of its course.

“We’re still at the bail hearings of the suspects and not on the trial proper. It’s easy to be jaded about this thing at four years. An ordinary case should be resolved within five years,” Conde told a forum here of 60 news reporters, campus press writers and mass communication students.

The trial focuses on 103 suspects, including three principal suspects of the Ampatuan clan, on their role in what was deemed the world’s worst single incident of killing of journalists. Thirty-two media workers and 26 other persons were killed on that November 23, 2009 incident in a remote town in Maguindanao.

Notwithstanding a Supreme Court resolution in June 2011 that assigned a special court, Conde said that the designated Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City “has nothing special in its process”.

The special court was granted by the high court “full authority to resolve any matter and issue which may arise from the said cases, including issues cognizable by other special courts without need of further designation by this Court”.

The Supreme Court also granted the call from both the families and the suspects “a speedy disposition of the case by conducting daily marathon hearings.”

The special court, presided by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, is holding trial twice a week. Trials though, had been frequently postponed due to pleadings and technicalities raised by the defense lawyers.

“You would have expected that this court has thought out of the box. But it did not take advantage of its being a special court,” he said.

Lawyers interviewed by Conde had been asking why there were no summary proceedings on the hearings for bail as what was practiced with ordinary cases. A summary proceeding on bail would just lump all the petitions of the suspect to be decided in one session.

Conde said a special court “would have given the judge leeway to make decisions on the conduct of the trial”.

“For instance, when the bail hearing on Datu Unsay (Ampatuan Jr), who is one of the principal suspects was done and all evidences were presented against him, the court could not proceed to rule on his case, because it has to preside on the hearings of the others.”

“In a special court, a judge could have ruled that it can decide on this hearing first. If they did that, it could have communicated its seriousness on the case to the public, to the families. They would say, see, we are serious.”

He said he heard the Supreme Court is amending things to make the trial move faster.

Conde said the positive thing on these hearings for bail is on the evidences presented by the prosecution, which Conde said “will be automatically subsumed on the merits of the case for the trial proper”.

But with the pace of the trial, he doubts this would be finished by the end of the term of President Noynoy Aquino in 2016. The President made such promise to the families of the victims.

“At the rate it is going, it’s been four years now, it will take a miracle. But who knows,” Conde said.

He added that options for the families are “very, very limited” such as constant monitoring of the trial and “making noise” or constant meetings with officials and the international community to pressure the government to act on the case.

“They have been very tireless in meeting with (Justice Secretary Leila) de Lima, (Justice) Undersecretary Francisco Baraan, with NUJP (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines) and other groups. Then there are the EU (European Union) human rights bodies. They have been conscientious, and that’s an option they have to keep doing,”

He said it is understandable for some families to give up this campaign “because of the threats, hardship and hopelessness of the case dragging.”

But he believes that campaigning would prevent the public from forgetting the worst case of journalist killing in recent history, or the other killings of journalists and other critics of government.

On Saturday, the fourth commemoration of the massacre, journalists all over the country including Davao City would stage rallies to call for the speedy resolution of the case, as well as justice to other slain journalists.

A report from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) said 23 journalists have been killed under the Aquino administration since July 2010. The group also said this is the worst case load since 1986, when Aquino’s mother Corazon was placed to the presidency.

“Someone said fear and anxiety make impunity thrive. My impression is forgetting is the bigger enemy of accountability, and the biggest ally of impunity. When we forget, we allow criminals or human rights violators to get away with murder,” Conde said. (Tyrone A. Velez,

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