Filipino Families Furious As Massacre Trial Drags On

May 9, 2011

Anthony Kuhn

Frustration is growing at the slow pace of justice in the Philippines. The trials of those accused of murdering 34 journalists and two dozen others have dragged on for more than 500 days without any conclusive results.

The murders are often described as the worst single atrocity against journalists, and victims' families and media rights groups are demanding action from the Philippine government.

In the basement of the courthouse in Quezon City, part of the metro Manila region, Catholics pray for the souls of the departed. In courtrooms upstairs, doctors present grim evidence of how the victims were killed.

Juliet Evardo, the mother of one slain journalist, is furious at the pace of justice.

"Why is this taking so long? Is it because they are rich and we are poor, and it's OK to just step on us?" she asks. "Every time we attend the hearings and hear the autopsy reports, it's just reliving the pain, so we hope this can all be resolved soon."

The prime suspect in the case is Andal Ampatuan Jr., the mayor of Ampatuan town where the killings took place. He's in jail along with his father, the former Maguindanao governor. The Ampatuans are the province's most powerful clan, which once commanded a personal army.

Evardo says she's taking risks to come to the courthouse.

"Of course we are afraid. They still have wealth, power and guns, and even now they could have us killed if they wanted to," she says. "But they cannot take away from me my fight for justice for my son."

'We Have Not Seen Any Major Change'

Lawyer Harry Roque is representing the victims' families. "Despite the lapse of about 14 months since the time of the massacre, we're only on our 18th witness," he says. "And we are presenting the testimonies of no less than 500 witnesses."

He says that at this rate, trying the nearly 200 defendants in the case could take longer than the six-year term of President Benigno Aquino III, who took office last year. And that, Roque says, could violate the Philippines' international human rights commitments. Aquino has pledged to make prosecuting the case a top priority, but Roque has his doubts.

"The situation has changed dramatically with the new president, but what worries me is — although we have trust in this administration in the sense that they have no debt of gratitude to the accused in this case — we have not seen any major change in policies as far the prosecution of this case is concerned," he says.

Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu's wife and sisters were slain along with the journalists as they went to file papers for his gubernatorial candidacy.

"The doctors last week, they presented the autopsy of my wife, and it's so sad that my wife has 17 gunshots wounds. She was even raped," he says.

The Ampatuans run most of the towns in Maguindanao. The Mangudadatus run the rest. Mangudadatu says the two political families were allies until he decided to compete against the Ampatuans in the 2009 election.

"I talked to the old man, Andal Ampatuan Sr. [I said], 'You'd better stop killing people' and he should straighten his mind in serving people. When he told me that he would never stop killing people, that's the time I decided to go against him," Mangudadatu says.

Sending A Signal

Philippine media have reported that the former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, allowed the Ampatuans to run Maguindanao like warlords because they delivered votes to her.

Luis Teodoro, former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, argues that government often fails to distinguish between insurgents and critics. That, and a weak Filipino justice system, allows people who kill journalists to enjoy a degree of impunity. He says justice in the massacre trial would help dismantle that impunity.

"Not dismantle it altogether, I think, but it will help," Teodoro says. "If, however, they are let go, then it will send the opposite signal — that you can keep killing journalists."

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 66 newsmen have been killed in the Philippines since 1992, but there have only been five convictions. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.