Families of victims welcome conviction of Ampatuans

Families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre welcome the conviction of the primary suspects in the killing of 58 individuals. (Photo by Avon Ang/ Altermidya)

“This serves as a crack to the impunity in the killings of journalists.”

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By RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — “Parang nabunutan ng tinik ang puso namin.” (The pain in our hearts seemed to vanish.)

This is how Jay Mark Jhoy Dulay described his feelings when he learned that the Regional Trial Court Branch 221 declared the members of the Ampatuan clan guilty over the murder of his father and 56 others.

In a historic decision on the landmark case, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes found Andal Unsay Jr., Zaldy, Datu Anwar Sajid, Datu Anwar Sr. and Datu Anwar Jr. and 24 others guilty beyond reasonable doubt and sentenced them to reclusion perpetua without parole.

Jay Mark was only ten years old when he lost his father Jhoy, the only breadwinner in the family at that time. His mother, Marilyn Saludares, had to work to support him. She is now a domestic helper in Kuwait.

Jay Mark said his mother is also happy that the Ampatuans have been convicted. “She said our sacrifices were all worth it,” Jay Mark told Bulatlat in an interview.

Jhoy was one of the 58 who joined the convoy that would supposedly file the candidacy of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu on Nov. 23, 2009. The convoy was flagged down in a checkpoint, the passengers kidnapped and killed in barangay Salman, Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. Thirty-two of the victims were journalists.

Joseph Decena, whose brother Joel was among those killed, said of the decision, “My doubts on our justice system disappeared.”

The trial against the Ampatuans took more than decade, following the deluge of petitions filed by the defense.

Meanwhile, of 187 media killings documented since 1986, only 17 cases had conviction. No mastermind has been brought to justice.

Decena said that although 57 of the accused have been acquitted, the primary suspects have been convicted.

Ricardo Brizuela, brother of Concepcion, looks forward to seeing the Ampatuans in jail. “Starting today, they (the Ampatuans) should be made to suffer. Somehow, we could get even,” Ricardo said in Filipino.

While the families welcomed the decision, they also fear for their security. Members of the Ampatuan clan, including Sajid Islam Ampatuan and Datu Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan Sr., were acquitted due to reasonable doubt. Moreover, 80 of the accused remain at large.

Grace Morales, whose husband and sister were among the victims, said they could not dismiss the possibility that the Ampatuans would go after them. “They did it with our witnesses, what would prevent them from harassing us?”

At least three witnesses have been killed, according private lawyer Nena Santos.

Brizuela feared that the acquitted Ampatuans would be mobilized to harass the families. “They still have the influence. They have the money,” Brizuela said.

Nonoy Espina, chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), underscored the accountability of the government in the massacre, saying the perpetrators were government officials and state agents.

Espina called on the government to arrest the other suspects and provide protection for the families.

‘Big victory’

Rachel Pastores of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), lawyer of the family of Arturo Betia, considers the court’s decision as a big victory.

“This serves as a crack to the impunity in the killings of journalists,” Pastores said.

Pastores added that the conviction of the Ampatuans, then close allies of former President Gloria Arroyo, also serves as a warning to other politicians who “abuse their power.”

Pastores said the struggle of the families and the support provided by local and international media groups and advocates yielded positive results.

Asked if the Ampatuans would file an appeal, Pastores said they are confident with the evidence against the convicted. “The burden of proof lies on the defense,” she said.

The Ampatuan massacre is considered as the single deadliest attack on journalists and the worst case of electoral violence in history. ()

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