21 April 2010
Philippines: Handling of Maguindanao massacre case raises concerns about
Dropping the charges against two prominent members of the Ampatuan family
charged with involvement in the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre three
weeks before national elections smacks of placing politics before justice
and human rights, Amnesty International said today.
The decision by the Department of Justice, on 17 April, a Saturday, to
drop charges against Zaldy Ampatuan, Regional Governor of the Autonomous
Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Akmad Ampatuan, acting Vice Governor of
Maguindanao province was based largely on their alibis showing that they
were not in Maguindanao at the time of the massacre.
However, that they were not physically present during the murder is
immaterial, as the two men were charged with conspiracy rather than direct
participation. The timing and the manner in which the executive decision
was made raises questions as to the reasons why the Secretary of Justice, a
political appointee, intervened.
The worst pre-election violence in Philippine history—the Maguindanao
massacre which killed 63 people including 33 journalists—focused global
attention on the human rights situation in the country. The victims were
on their way to file a certificate of candidacy for a provincial
gubernatorial candidate when they were ambushed and killed by armed men.
Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said that he made the decision to
drop the charges because there was no probable cause, and their names
should be struck off the charge sheet in the multiple murder case. The
panel of government prosecutors, however, say that as they are pursuing a
theory of conspiracy in the multiple murder case, the two men did not need
to be in the scene of the crime to have been involved.
The government prosecutors also complained that they only found out about
the executive decision by the Secretary through the media. They said:
“The evidence we have against the accused, our individual conscience, our
sense of right and wrong and notion of justice and injustice, leave us no
room to follow Secretary Agra’s orders….We are deeply concerned that the
resolution will all the more convince a long sceptical public that our
criminal justice system is impotent when the accused are politically
influential…. We can not be a mute party to the grant of impunity to
The Maguindanao massacre has placed the Philippine government under
increased international scrutiny. The onus is now on the Department of
Justice and the courts to demonstrate through the handling of this case
that justice can be achieved.
Allegations of election fraud during the 2004 polls, particularly in
Maguindanao where paramilitaries and militia groups are known to have
abducted and unlawfully killed people under orders of local politicians,
have cast a heavy shadow on the upcoming elections. With the elections
coming up in May, the Philippine government needs to demonstrate that it
will not tolerate impunity for human rights abuses for political gain.
The Maguindanao massacre illustrated all too clearly that local
politicians and their armed groups can kill more than 50 people in broad
daylight to forward their political interests.
The Philippines must abide by its obligations under international human
rights law to ensure effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses
and their families, and to prevent impunity, Amnesty International said.
Initially, the Maguindanao multiple murder case had been assigned to a
local court. Under Philippine law, the local court can either honour the
decision of the Secretary or assert its own jurisdiction as a separate
branch of government.
In Philippine law, for a person to be charged, the quantum of evidence
needed is “probable cause”, to be determined through a preliminary
investigation conducted by prosecutors. If the prosecutors find probable
cause, the case is assigned to the court. It is the court’s responsibility
to then assess the evidence and to rule on the accused person’s guilt or
Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra ordered the multiple murder charges
against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan to be dropped based on a flight manifesto,
a phone bill and a witness testimony against other evidence, including from
a former member of the Ampatuan’s private army testifying that the two
accused participated in the planning of the murder.
Mr. Agra had assumed the post in February 2010. He was President Arroyo’s
election lawyer during the 2004 presidential elections and again her
private counsel during the 2006 impeachment proceedings against her.
197 people have been named suspects in the multiple murder case.
According to media reports, as of 13 April, 59 suspects are in government
custody: 47 policemen, two militiamen, and some members of the Ampatuan
clan. Media reports also indicate that the remaining identified suspects,
including 97 Civilian Volunteer Organization militiamen, 13 policemen, four
soldiers, 13 other members of the Ampatuan family and other suspects, are
Maria Edilyd P. Orias
Media, Communication and Publications
Amnesty International Philippines