By CHERYLL D. FIEL
DAVAO CITY — Election violence erupted this early right in the heart of Maguindanao, a province long wrought by political killings.
Forty persons, including lawyers and journalists on their way to Maguindanao’s capital town of Shariff Aguak, were reportedly taken by armed men at around 9:30 am on Monday, November 23.
Combined military and police search team recovered 21 bodies in Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town later in the afternoon, according to Colonel Jonathan Ponce, 6th Infantry Division spokesperson.
Ponce said the bodies were believed to be part of the convoy led by Genalyn Mangudadatu, on her way to Shariff Aguak town to file the certificate of candidacy of her husband, Buluan town Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu.
The Buluan vice mayor is running for governor in Maguindanao, a post currently held by incumbent governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr. a close ally of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Maguindanao, one of the provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is about 160 kilometers from this city.
Ponce, however, said the bodies have not yet been positively identified. He also believed there could still be more.
Buluan Mayor Ibrahim “Jong” Mangudadatu, brother of the Buluan vice mayor, earlier told the media that among those killed were his relatives, two women lawyers and some media persons. The Buluan mayor earlier went on air over a Cotabato City station to report that six members of the party led by his wife, Genalyn, had been beheaded.
Among the persons initially identified in media reports as missing are Genalyn Tiamzon-Mangudadatu, wife of Buluan vice-mayor, Bai Eden Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Mangudadatu town and sister of the Buluan vice mayor and Lawyers Connie Brizuela and Cynthia Oquindo. NUJP confirmed 12 of their colleagues to have died but did not yet identify the names.
Reports from the NUJP local chapters in Mindanao named the journalists abducted to include a certain Ian Subang, president of a broadcasters’ association in General Santos City; Leah Dalmacio, Gina dela Cruz from General Santos City; Marites Cabutas, print reporter from General Santos City; Bart Maravilla, Bombo Radyo Koronadal chief reporter; Joy Duhay; Henry Araneta of DZRH Cotabato; Andy Teodoro, publisher of a local paper based in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat; Bong Reblando, reporter of Manila Bulletin; Mac-Mac Areola, Jimmy Cabillo and Neneng Montano of radio station DXCP.
“There are still persons who have not been identified, so we are not sure yet if this is the complete list of journalists abducted and beheaded,” the NUJP said.
The Mangudadatus are also a powerful political family in Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao provinces while the Ampatuans have closely been identified with Arroyo.
Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan of ARMM has recently been appointed as regional chairman of Arroyo’s newly-merged Lakas-Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino-Christian Muslim Democrat (Lakas-Kampi-CMD) political party. He is the son of Andal Ampatuan, the Maguindanao governor.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the abduction and killing, calling it “a brazen challenge” to efforts in strengthening the country’s fragile democracy.
“Running for office and voting are as much exercises of free will and expression as covering and reporting the news,” the NUJP statement said.
NUJP’s statement said the military confirmed the involvement of a mayor and a police officer in the abduction.
���The Ampatuan massacre goes beyond the issue of freedom of the press and of expression and strikes at the very foundations of democracy,” the NUJP statement said. “This incident not only erases all doubts about the Philippines being the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, outside of Iraq, it could very well place the country on the map as a candidate for a failed democracy.”
Buluan mayor Mangudadatu confirmed in a radio interview with the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation that 12 journalists were killed. He also said that six of those abducted were beheaded.
“If it is true that a local government official and a police officer are involved, then it says a lot about how far government has gone to eradicate the warlord politics that continues to reign over many of our provinces,” the NUJP statement said.
The media group called the hostaging of journalists an “assault to the Constitution” and demanded swift action from the government to resolve the crisis.
“We expect nothing less from this government than the swift apprehension and punishment of everyone involved in this gruesome assault on the national body politic, including the masterminds, regardless of who they might be,” the statement said.
“Anything less would mean that the impunity that has emboldened those who would silence the press has spread to embolden those who would subvert our democracy for their own selfish interests.”
The NUJP demands that the abductors release the hostages, including the journalists, unconditionally.
“Should any harm befall our colleagues, we will hold accountable the civil and security officials of Maguindanao, the ARMM and the national government for their failure to end the culture of violence and warlordism,” the NUJP said. (Cheryll D. Fiel, davaotoday.com)