By Julius D. Mariveles and Cong B. Corrales

A PRIVATE prosecutor in the almost five-year-old Ampatuan Massacre case has tagged the withdrawal of three defense lawyers as part of the alleged masterminds’ “Plan B” that would further delay the court proceedings.

Lawyer Harry Roque, who represents the families of 13 victims, said that the withdrawal of defense counsels Sigfrid Fortun, Andres Manuel, and Paris Real as lawyers for some of the accused – including alleged masterminds Andal Ampatuan Sr., and his son, Andal Jr. – “is obviously part of a delaying strategy.”

Until yesterday, Fortun was lead counsel for Andal Sr., Andal Jr., and former Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

Fortun was one of the lawyers of former President Joseph Estrada during his impeachment trial.

The victims were killed November 23, 2009 in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, the single deadliest attack against journalists and media workers who comprised 32 of those murdered.

It's "Plan B" for lawyer Harry Roque | Facebook photo courtesty of Harry Roque

It’s “Plan B” for lawyer Harry Roque | Facebook photo courtesy of Harry Roque

“They will do everything to delay since we have already made a formal offer of evidence against Unsay (Andal, Jr.),” Roque told the PCIJ. He called the withdrawal “Plan B,” with “Plan A being the delaying of the formal offer of evidence.”

Roque added that “it is clear now that there is a confluence of interests” but he did not elaborate when asked whom he was referring to. Two other private prosecutors, Nena Santos and Prima Quinsayas, objected last week to the plan of State prosecutors to rest of their case and the evidence-in-chief for 28 of the 111 suspects who have already been arraigned by the court.

“Formal offer of evidence” is required under the Rules of Court in the Philippines. “The court shall consider no evidence which has not been formally offered. The purpose for which the evidence is offered must be specific,” Section 34 of the Revised Rules of Evidence posted on lawphil.net says.

But Lawyer Prima Quinsayas, another private prosecutor who represents 17 of the families of the victims, said she is not expecting any delay in the proceedings of the bail hearings even if the Ampatuans would change their lawyers.

PRIVATE PROSECUTOR Prima Quinsayas, left, with lawyer Nena Santos at a news conference last week during which they announced their objections to the plan of public prosecutors to rest the case against 28 suspects in the Ampatuan Massacre case | Photo by Cong. B. Corrales

PRIVATE PROSECUTOR Prima Quinsayas, left, with lawyer Nena Santos at a news conference last week during which they announced their objections to the plan of public state prosecutors to rest the case against 28 suspects in the Ampatuan Massacre case | Photo by Cong. B. Corrales

She pointed out that Andal Sr. and Andal Jr. are supposed to be the first to present their rebuttal evidence and even if their new lawyers would ask for time to review the documents, the court can simply schedule Zaldy to present his rebuttal first.

“It will not necessarily be a delay,” Quinsayas told the PCIJ.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), however, also believes that the withdrawal of the three defense lawyers of the Ampatuans is evidently a delaying tactic.

The CMFR is the secretariat of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition of six media organizations formed in 2003 following numerous attacks against Filipino journalists. Among its members are the PCIJ, the Philippine Press Institute, and the Center for Community Journalism and Development.

“This is a move, clearly, to buy time. They want a little more time,” she said. “I am forced to surmise that this (withdrawal of defense lawyers) has something to do with the bribery allegations made.”

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NUJP’s Rowena Paraan | Photo by Cong B. Corrales

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) national chair Rowena Caranza-Paraan raised more questions, however, since she could not understand why the three lawyers submitted their withdrawal of appearance at this point of the bail hearings.

“What’s the point? Bakit sila nag-withdraw sa case (Why did they withdraw from the case?) Is it a delaying tactic,” Paraan asked. She added that it is also confusing since the defense counsels of the Ampatuans are supposed to present their rebuttal of evidence in the bail hearings after the state prosecution panel decided to rest their case on the bail hearings and in the main multiple murder case.

Ampatuan defense counsels Sigrid Fortun, Andres Manuel, and Paris Real submitted their withdrawal of appearance in three separate filings at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221. The defense lawyers did not state their reasons for resigning as legal counsels for the Ampatuans. Their clients, however, signed their withdrawal of appearance.

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