Friday, December 11, 2009

In The Shadow Of Arroyo's Warlords

Roadblocks to justice at every turn. Ruth Pollard, in General Santos City, Mindanao, investigates the execution and attempted cover-up of a premeditated political massacre.

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines - With handkerchiefs held over their mouths, each with the dead stare of shared horror and grief, dozens of family members of the 31 journalists and media workers slain in a Mindanao massacre gathered this week in General Santos to tell their stories.

One woman, seven months pregnant, wondered aloud how she would be able to pay for medical care needed for the birth of her child, let alone support her family after her husband's death. Many families fear reprisals and remain bewildered by an act of such brutality that was so much worse than anyone's deepest fears. "Please help us," another woman sobbed. "We do not know what to do. How will we ever get justice?"

THE massacre on November 23, one of the worst incidents of election violence in the Philippines' history, was born out of decades of escalating clan violence, entrenched corruption and political kickbacks. At least 57 people are dead and many are living in fear. Some are in hiding. The culture of impunity that has allowed hundreds of political murders to go unpunished in the past decade means there is no safe place for those who challenge the warlords.

Since the massacre, 150 people have been arrested and there are 57 murder charges to prosecute. Last week the central government used a charge of rebellion to invoke martial law in Maguindanao, the semi-autonomous region on the southern island of Mindanao.

Key members of the Ampatuan family, Maguindanao's powerful ruling clan, are under arrest. Andal Ampatuan jnr, son of the former governor of the province, is behind bars in Manila, charged with 25 counts of murder. His father, the Maguindanao Governor, Andal Ampatuan snr, and his brother Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, have been charged with rebellion and removed from their posts. The family compounds have been raided by the military looking for arms caches.

Still, their private militia has not been disarmed and continues to exert control over key parts of the province. And the death threats continue, many of them directed at journalists working in Mindanao.

The sinister warnings come via text message. "Where are you?" the unknown texter asks. After the execution of 31 journalists and media workers during the massacre, some reporters have stopped answering their phones.

The justice system in Maguindanao - the scene of the massacre - has almost ground to a halt after judges fled their posts, while those who are left struggle with badly collected evidence and constant threats.

The chief city prosecutor in General Santos City, Edilberto Jamora, is disarmingly frank about the pressure he is facing. "This is what happens when governments act outside the law, when people think they are above the law and there is the belief that misdeeds are unpunishable," Mr Jamora said.

The Philippines Supreme Court this week agreed to move the murder hearings to Manila in response to the threats. Yet the Government has resisted calls to establish a special tribunal to investigate the massacre, despite the scale of the undertaking.

THE bodies were buried six deep. Soil, bodies, soil, bodies, soil, bodies.

Independent forensic experts believe the massacre was all over in less than an hour.

The occupants of six cars in the election convoy were heading to Ampatuan town to file election papers for Ibrahim Mangudadatu, a political rival of the Ampatuans. They were stopped by more than 100 heavily armed gunmen and forced to drive down a narrow road to a remote location three kilometres off the National Highway.

Earlier requests for police and military assistance to assure the security of the convoy had been denied. Their mobile phones were immediately confiscated. A backhoe was driven in behind them. The graves had been dug three days earlier in preparation. There was no escape.

Media reports in the Philippines on Thursday suggest the 31 journalists in the convoy were forced to watch the execution of Mr Mangudadatu's wife and sisters, along with two lawyers and some bystanders who were caught up in the attack, before they too were shot multiple times and killed. Mr Mangudadatu was not in the convoy.

Forensic experts interviewed by the Herald have despaired at the contamination of the crime scene, the incomplete excavation of the site, the use of a backhoe to remove the bodies that further damaged the corpses and the autopsy reports that are alarmingly short on detail.

Chris Cobb-Smith, part of the team brought in to work with the Commission of Human Rights in the Philippines to conduct an independent investigation of the massacre, said police and military officers had been "outnumbered and outgunned" by the Ampatuan's private militia for at least 24 hours after the event, preventing the collection of evidence that was fast deteriorating.

As late as Wednesday - more than two weeks after the killings - his team had performed another search on the grave sites and found more shell casings, bullets, clothes, handbags and a set of dentures, he said. "The crime scene was not processed properly by any stretch of the imagination," Mr Cobb-Smith said. "We still, ultimately, do not know how many people were killed in this attack."

Meanwhile, the head of the Commission of Human Rights in the Philippines, Leila de Lima, said at least 200 others may have been killed and buried in mass graves in the Maguindanao towns of Shariff Aguak and Ampatuan on the order of the Ampatuan clan during its eight-year reign.

Local human rights groups say the warlords' power has grown exponentially under Gloria Arroyo's reign. Her Government's response to the emergence of Islamic groups in the south, helped along by increased US military aid following the attacks of September 11, 2001, has been to encourage the creation of "civilian volunteer organizations".

These civilians, often armed and trained by the Philippine's military, conduct counter-insurgency work against the Islamic groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Yet their creation has only served to provide a private militia for the warlords, such as Governor Andal Ampatuan, which is often better armed and resourced than the military, the rights groups say.

Cerge Remonde, the President's press secretary, denied the Government had facilitated the growth of private militias. He did, however, acknowledge the seriousness of the crime. "We consider this incident as a very serious blot on the history of our country - while it is true there is a long history of political violence...nothing comes close to this."

The Herald's Ruth Pollard traveled to the Philippines as part of an International Federation of Journalists mission that examined the aftermath of the Ampatuan massacre. (Ruth Pollard / The Sydney Morning Herald)


No comments: