Maguindanao massacre: How silence and a medical mission cleared two of the main accused

By Xave Gregorio, CNN Philippines

The Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 ended the so-called trial of the decade with a conviction of five members of the Ampatuan clan and 38 others over their involvement in the Maguindanao massacre.

However, 56 others were cleared of any liability for the crime — said to be the worst case of election-related violence in the Philippines and the deadliest single attack on journalists.

Among those acquitted are four members of the Ampatuan clan, including Datu Sajid Ampatuan and Datu Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan, who attended meetings on the plot to kill now-Maguindanao 2nd District Rep. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. The court ruled that their presence at those meetings is not enough to convict them.

“[Datu Sajid’s] presence in the abovementioned meetings without uttering any words of encouragement that served to embolden and influence his brothers to carry out their plan so as to make him liable as a conspirator is wanting,” the court said.

It also dismissed the testimony of a witness claiming to have overheard Datu Sajid with some visitors in his house the day after the massacre, discussing how to recover the abandoned backhoe used to bury the victims.

The court also said that Datu Akmad could not be held guilty as a conspirator to the massacre, even if he agreed to the killing of Mangudadatu in their meetings.

It said there is no evidence that he followed through with their plan as he attended a medical mission on the day of the killings; and no eyewitnesses testified that Datu Sajid was present at the crime site on November 23, 2009.

Unaware, not present

The court also said that 33 policemen and 22 others — including two Ampatuans, Jonathan and Jimmy — are “totally innocent” of involvement in the massacre, as they had no prior knowledge of the murder plot and were not present at the scene of the crime.

It said the 13 policemen who were assigned at a checkpoint in Sitio Binibiran and the 11 policemen who were manning a checkpoint in Sitio Masalay could not be held guilty for the massacre because the convoy only passed their checkpoints and they were unaware who the passengers in the convoy were.

“While they may have heard the burst of gunfire after said convoy had passed, their failure to report the same or respond thereto, should not be.. [held] against them, given that burst of gunfires is considered a normal occurrence in their place, the peace and order situation being one of the major problems therein since time immemorial,” the court said.

The 22 civilians, accused to be part of the Ampatuans’ private army, were also cleared because there is not enough evidence which clearly points to them as having fired at the 57 massacre victims.

Among the policemen who were acquitted is PO1 Warden Legawan, who was spotted by Badal to along with PInsp. Saudi Mokamad heading to the crime scene on the day of the massacre, but was not seen during the time of the shooting.

The court also cleared PO1 Ahmad Badal and PO2 Tanny Dalgan even if they were present at the crime scene as this “can be explained by the fact that they were the security escorts” of witness Sukarno Badal. “They were not identified to have fired shots at the 57 victims,” it added.

PO1 Sandy Sabang was also acquitted despite having been identified to have been present during one of the meetings of the Ampatuans, as no evidence was presented to show that he was one of the conspirators.

PO1 Rainer Ebus was likewise cleared because no witness categorically identified him having a hand in the plot to kill Mangudadatu, despite being a security escort of Datu Unsay and Mohamad Sangki.

The court also cleared PSupt. Abdulwahid Pedtucasan and PSupt. Bahnarin Kamaong of involvement as no evidence was presented to clearly show they were involved in the ploy.

The court also said the prosecution failed to refute the alibis of PO1 Abdullah Baguadatu, SPO1 Oscar Donato and PO1 Michael Madsig.

None of the prosecution’s witnesses also identified Takpan Dilon to have been present at the crime scene nor was he identified to have conspired with the accused, the court said.

No body, no crime

All of the accused were acquitted of murder in connection with the death of Reynaldo Momay, a photojournalist for Tacurong City-based publication Midland Review, whose body was never found. This could have been the 58th murder charge. Lawyer Harry Roque said the camp will appeal the court’s dismissal of the Momay family’s claim for damages.

The court said the prosecution failed to present solid proof that Momay was actually one of the victims, as they only presented testimonies stating that he boarded a Toyota Grandia and his voice was heard in the background in a phone call between a witness and another victim.

“There is no evidence on record of any danger that could have jeopardized Momay’s life in relation to the charge of murder. The prosecution also did not ascertain whether the recovery of his corpse was impossible. No one had testified to this effect,” the court said.

It added, “The prosecution altogether failed to show whether Momay himself reached Sitio Masalay and experienced the same danger that the other victims of the convoy faced.”

Aside from two testimonies, the prosecution presented dentures recovered in December 2009 by investigators from the Commission on Human Rights and the Scene of the Crime Operatives which Marivic Bilbao, Momay’s live-in partner for 22 years, identified as belonging to the photojournalist.

Bilbao testified that she cleaned that denture every day for six years since 2003. The court, however, was not convinced, saying this was “implausible.”

“Who would ever clean everyday the denture of a loved one or live-in partner when the latter is not physically incapable of cleaning it himself/herself? Is it a normal human behavior? The court can only surmise that Bilbao resorted to this kind of narration in order to convince it of her ability to identify said denture as belonging to Momay,” the court said.

It also threw out the testimony of a missionary who claimed to have made the dentures, since the marking that he left on them is a marking that he leaves on every denture he makes.

Fight not over

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said government prosecutors had expected for some of the accused to be acquitted, but state prosecutors asserted that they presented strong evidence.

“We know from the beginning where our strength lies and where certain gaps in our evidence exist so this is something more or less we expected,” Guevarra said.

The Justice department’s prosecution team said they will still have to go through the decision and find out if they can file a certiorari — a case before a higher court arguing that a lower court acted with grave abuse of discretion — over the acquittals.

A question also hangs over the acquittal of PSupt. Bahnarin Kamaong, whom the court also sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City court said during the announcement of the verdict on Thursday that her ruling is only partial, as 80 of the accused are still at large.

Her nearly a decade-in-the-making decision included an order for all of them to be arrested, however, the Philippine National Police (PNP) noted that some of them may have already left the country.

“From time-to-time, the information sometimes nawawala, then naga-appear sila sa iba’t-ibang location so by the time that we confirm the info wala na naman ‘yung tao doon,” PNP spokesperson Bernard Banac told reporters after the verdict’s announcement.

[Translation: Sometimes we receive information that they have fled, then they appear again at different locations, so by the time that we confirm the information, they’re no longer there.]

The PNP has committed to double their efforts in arresting the 80 suspects.

For Rep. Mangudadatu, the verdict is not much of a closure, as victims will still seek full justice for the bloody mass murder.

“Kung may guilty verdict, pupunta sila Court of Appeals, Supreme Court. Matagal na proseso ‘yan. Long fight pa ito,” he added.

[Translation: With a guilty verdict, they will go to the Court of Appeals, Supreme Court. It will be a long process, this will be a long fight.]

Meanwhile, other kin of the massacre victims expressed fear for their safety, with the acquittal of some Ampatuan clan members and other police officers previously linked to the multiple murder case.

“Natatakot din kami… Nakaya nga nilang patayin ang isa sa mga magulang namin, paano pa kami? Pwede rin nila kaming balikan,” a member of the Maravilla family said in a press conference after the verdict announcement.

[Translation: We’re also scared. They got to kill our parents, what more for us? They can go go after us.]

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