Legal experts warned of a looming crisis in the justice system after public prosecutors openly defied an order by Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra to drop the murder charges against two prominent members of the Ampatuan clan accused of involvement in the November 23 Maguindanao Massacre last year.
Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) Governor Roan Libarios said Agra’s order to clear former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and his uncle, former Maguindanao Vice Governor Akmad Ampatuan of the murder charges was “highly irregular” and ran counter to normal court procedures.
In clearing the two Ampatuans, Libarios said Agra had effectively overruled his own prosecution panel, and overturned the initial findings of the courts that there was probable cause to charge the two. Six members of the Ampatuan clan, including patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., had been charged for the murder of 57 people in Ampatuan town last year. Among the victims were 32 members of the media who were covering the filing of the certificate of candidacy of the elder Ampatuan’s political rival.
“Dapat pinabayaan na lang ni Secretary Agra yung decision ng prosecution team at ni Judge [Jocelyn] Solis-Reyes na ipagpatuloy yung kaso,” Libarios said. Libarios and IBP general counsel Atty. Rodolfo Urbiztondo had joined other lawyers and media groups in denouncing Agra’s move in a press conference held Monday, April 19.
Libarios clarified that Agra’s resolution was not yet final and executory and that the final decision still lies with Regional Trial Court Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes. The lady judge, lauded for her no-nonsense and brave demeanor, last month rejected moves by defense lawyers to have her inhibit herself from the case on the grounds of being biased against their client, Datu Unsay Mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr.
On Monday, members of the prosecution panel led by Chief State Prosecutor Claro Arellano staged a walkout after publicly questioning Agra’s order. Agra’s decision was release on the evening of April 16, a Friday, just as the accused Ampatuans were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig from their detention cells in Mindanao. The team had earned the respect and support of private lawyers representing the kin of journalists killed in Maguindanao that has now resulted in an ‘open war’ at the justice department.
The panel of public prosecutors had been getting some flak from other lawyers, observers and even the media covering the bail hearings for their alleged lack of competence and skill in handling the controversial case. While Agra has been quoted as saying he will not replace the team as punishment for openly opposing his order, it remains to be seen how the crisis will play out since the prosecutors indicated they are may not file a motion before the judge to clear Governor Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan of the murder complaint.
Attorney Harry Roque of Center Law Philippines noted that Agra had served as one of the lawyers of First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo in several libel suits filed against members of the media.
Media organizations also joined hands in condemning Agra’s order. Among those represented in Monday’s press conference were ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and BusinessWorld.
Rowena Paraan of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines joined the Philippine National Police and the Defense Press Corps in calling for the resignation of Agra.
Paraan also scored the presidential aspirants for their slow reaction to this major development in the case, noting that news of Agra’s order had been reported in the media as early as Friday. She said it was curious that hardly any presidential candidate had been discussing the issue even though it was an election season.
While Paraan acknowledged that this woud be a long court battle, she said the families of the victims should not just peg their hopes on the next president. “I don’t think we should rely on who’s going to be president to get justice for this case and for any other case of killings.”
Several aspirants had somewhat belatedly come out with statements denouncing the move of the DOJ on Monday afternoon, with LP standard-bearer Noynoy Aquino expressing ‘disappointment’, while Nacionalista Party presidential bet Manny Villar called for a ‘review’ of the case. Villar’s Vice Presidential candidate Loren Legarda, for her part, claimed she burst into tears upon hearing this development.
Paraan added that there have been increasing reports of persons offering to pay-off journalists or families of the victims to make them back off from the court case.