Philippines: Convictions for Ampatuan massacre a delayed but critical step for justice

Responding to the conviction of members of the powerful Ampatuan clan and others involved in the so-called Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao, Philippines, in 2009, Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International Regional Director, said:

“The conviction of the principal accused and several others is a critical step towards justice for victims of one of the worst killings of journalists in history. After ten years and a judicial process stalled under three presidents, this decision has been long in the making. A decade is too long for the families of the bereaved, as justice delayed is justice denied.

The families’ search for justice remains far from over. Some 80 other people accused have yet to be arrested.
Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director

“Even with these convictions, the families’ search for justice remains far from over. Some 80 other people accused have yet to be arrested. The government must take steps to find and prosecute all those suspected to have taken part in the massacre.

“The number of witnesses murdered during these grindingly slow judicial proceedings adds to the appalling culture of impunity and injustice surrounding this case.  This has been another blow for families of the 58 victims. Today’s court decision shows that the wheels of justice keep on turning. Suspected perpetrators of human rights violations will be held to account.

“The Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, with at least 15 journalists killed in attacks believed to be related to their work since the start of the Duterte administration. The government must ensure the security and safety of journalists in the country and prosecute those behind the killings. They must also dismantle private armies that underpin the power of political clans.”

Background

A total of 101 people – including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan – were the subject of the decision promulgated on 19 December 2019. They include 54 police officers. Eighty other suspects are still at large and were not part of the sentencing.

The principal accused and several others were sentenced to reclusion perpetua or maximum of 40 years in prison without parole. Several others were found guilty of accessory charges and sentenced to 6 to 10 years in prison. Around half, mostly police officers, were acquitted.

On 23 November 2009, 58 people – including 32 journalists and other media workers – were killed when a convoy came under attack by more than 100 armed men, allegedly including members of the police and the military.

The tragedy occurred ahead of the 2010 national elections. The convoy had been traveling in the southern province of Maguindanao through the territory of the powerful Ampatuan clan. It was on its way to file gubernatorial candidacy papers for Esmael Mangudadatu, who opposed Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of then- governor Andal Ampatuan Sr.

Trials in the civil and criminal cases are ongoing at a Quezon City Regional Trial Court. However, there have been several delays and setbacks and most of the court proceedings have been bail hearings. The families of the victims have also called on the National Police Commission to dismiss police officers allegedly involved in the assault.

Witnesses to the massacre and their families have since faced attacks and some have been killed. Dennis Sakal and Butch Saudagal, both of whom were expected to testify against the primary suspects in the massacre, were gunned down by unidentified men in Maguindanao on 18 November 2014, killing Sakal. Alijol Ampatuan, who according to prosecutors was willing to identify suspected perpetrators, was shot at close range in February 2012. Esmail Amil Enog, who testified in court that he had been a driver for gunmen implicated in the massacre, was found chain-sawed into pieces after disappearing in May 2012. No one is known to have been held accountable for these killings.