By Julius D. Mariveles
Dismayed witnesses, confusion over the tasks of lawyers, and questions about the commitment of the government in the prosecution of the case – these and more are some of the concerns raised by at least 44 families of the Ampatuan Massacre victims as the case drags on to its fifth year, the proceedings still stuck in bail hearings.
And Malacañang is not clueless about them. In fact, President Benigno Aquino III was one of the first to have been informed about it by Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu as early as February last year.
Mangudadatu, who lost his wife and several relatives in the massacre, sent the letter to Aquino last February 5, 2013 and this was received in behalf of the president by Interior and Local Government Sec. Manuel Roxas III on the same day, lawyer Prima Quinsayas, one of the private prosecutors, said.
The massacre took place in the village of Masalay in Ampatuan town last November 23, 2009 and was the single deadliest attack on journalists and media workers who comprised 32 of the 58 people who were about to deliver the certificate of candidacy of Mangudadatu who ran against the Ampatuans, a powerful clan in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.
A copy of the letter furnished the PCIJ showed that Mangudadatu, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, was seeking an audience with Aquino regarding the prosecution of the case after Justice Undersecretary Francisco F. Baraan issued a memorandum on February 1, 2013 that private prosecutors will be in charge of preparing the witnesses from the Mindanao.
“Undersigned respectfully seeks an audience with Your Excellency the soonest possible time to discuss highly urgent matters regarding the prosecution of the 23 November 2009 Ampatuan Massacre case,” Mangudadatu said in his letter as he outlined three of these concerns “needing immediate attention.”
- Management and post-trial care of witnesses;
- Management of prosecution efforts particularly in harmonizing working relations between and among public and private prosecutors’ and
- Ascertainment of the depth of government commitment to prosecute the case in terms of compliance to its mandate as representative of the People of the Philippines, including delineation of tasks and responsibilities of all stakeholders.
As early as last year, the president was also informed by Mangudadatu that “public and private prosecutors are in a highly tension-filled working atmosphere as there is confusion as to the delegation of tasks.”
Mangudadatu also informed the Chief Executive that the issue concerning witnesses has “reached a critical level” that it has been difficult for them to testify or be placed under the Witness Protection Security and Benefit Program of the Department of Justice.
“Witnesses have expressed distrust and discontent with the way they perceive the program of the DOJ to have handled them, especially regarding welfare and security of their families and themselves; insensitivity to our cultural and religious sensibilities has also been raised,” he pointed out.
When the letter was sent to the President, then Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan had already filed a petition for bail before the court and “thus, an audience soonest with Your Excellency is of utmost importance,” Mangudadatu said.
Until now, there has been no answer from Malacañang, Quinsayas told the PCIJ.
Mangudadatu, in a news conference Wednesday with some of the families of the victims in Manila, said the president is still supporting them.
‘WE WERE PATIENT’
Quinsayas said she and lawyer Nena Santos, another private prosecutor and lawyer for Mangudadatu, have been “patient” with the government prosecution panel. “We have exhausted all means before going public with our complaints, hindi totoo na nag-ingay kami kaagad (it is not true that we immediately made noise about it),” she said.
The letter of Mangudadatu came after a series of decisions of Justice Undersecretary Francisco A. Baraan III, who supervises the government prosecution panel. Quinsayas said this started January 2013 when public prosecutors failed to arrive in Mindanao to prepare the witnesses.
This was followed by a February 1 letter of Baraan addressed to Santos who was told that the private prosecutors will, starting on that date, be responsible for vetting the witnesses.
Baraan also said in the letter that the government panel has encountered “difficulty in securing the appearance of witnesses to testify in court, on account of the fact that most of these witnesses, including those covered under the (WPP), are in the custody of Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu of Mindanao.”