The Paris-based press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders expressed concern over the recent move by Department of Justice Alberto Agra to withdraw the murder charges against former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Zaldy Ampatuan and his cousin Akmad Ampatuan. The two are among the members of the Ampatuan clan that had been charged for the murder of 57 people in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao last November 23, 200. The victims included 32 members of the media who were covering the filing of the certificate of candidacy of Ampatuan’s political rival, Ishmael Mangudadatu.
In an open letter to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the group exressed fears that “the demands for justice… are being eroded by very dangerous political considerations.” Written to commemorate the fifth month since the massacre, the letter expressed the group’s concern over reports that the Ampatuans continue to maintain its private militia. The group also contained several recommendations for Arroyo, including the confiscation of the Ampatuan clan’s properties for the benefit of the victims’ families, and the postponement of the trial until after the elections.
The letter follows in full:
Open letter to President Arroyo five months after the Maguindanao massacre
Her Excellency Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
President of the Republic
Paris, 23 April 2010
Dear President Arroyo,
More than 50 of your fellow citizens, including 30 journalists, were massacred five months ago by the militiamen of one of your political allies in Maguindanao province. The bloodshed sent shockwaves far beyond your country’s borders. You reacted very firmly at the time, condemning this “supreme act of inhumanity that is a blight on our nation.” You also promised that “the perpetrators [would] not escape justice.” But we now fear that the demands of justice that you and the members of your government stressed at the time are being eroded by very dangerous political considerations.
Your government’s decision to withdraw certain charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan, brothers of the leading suspect, has dismayed the families of the victims and journalists’ organisations. Nearly 200 people, mostly members of the Ampatuan clan and their militias, have been charged in connection with the massacre but many of them have still not been detained.
The date of the massacre, 23 November 2009, will always be a black day for press freedom all over the world. Never in the history of journalism have the media pay such a heavy price in loss of life in a single day.
With the families of the victims struggling to cope with very difficult situations, it would be wise for your government to order the confiscation of some of the Ampatuan clan’s property so that the proceeds from its sale could be distributed among the affected families.
We hope you will give renewed assurances that impunity will not prevail in this case, which unfortunately is what has happened in many other cases of journalists murdered in your country. We are very worried by the fact that two relatives of prosecution witnesses were recently murdered. Violence of this kind is liable to intimidate those who have agreed to testify against the perpetrators and instigators of the massacre.
The families of victims have rightly asked for the trial to be postponed until after the coming elections in order to avoid any political exploitation of this very grave case. We regard this as a legitimate request. Former governor Andal Ampatuan Sr, whose son, Andal Ampatuan Jr, is on trial, was one of your political supporters in the last general elections.
According to the information we have received, the leading suspect’s brothers continue to finance their private militia, receiving their lieutenants and giving orders from their places of detention. They have also hired a score of lawyers tasked with using a range of procedural devices to obtain a light sentence for Andal Ampatuan Jr.
We hope that the purpose of the political will displayed after the massacre on this crucial matter for the international credibility of the Philippines was not just the immediate impact. We therefore urge you to reinforce the resources available to the judicial system and to guarantee its independence so that the trial will be exemplary and so that the massacre’s instigators as well as its perpetrators can be punished.
The culture of violence cannot explain everything. It is the culture of impunity, for which the government highest officials are partly responsible, that has allowed the killers and those who gave them their orders to execute so many journalists in all parts of the country.
If you do not do this, Reporters Without Borders will again refer this matter to the United Nations, in particular, to the UN Human Rights Council.
Our organisation also voices its support for the call made by the families of the victims for demonstrations today throughout the country to demand justice.
We look forward to a positive response to our request.