Justice Secretary Alberto Agra. A media poster showing a forensic expert digging the body of one of 57 people murdered in Maguindanao province in November 23, 2009.
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / April 18, 2010) – Various Filipino media groups have questioned Manila’s decision to drop all murder charges against the scion of a powerful political clan accused of brutally killing at least 57 people last year in Mindanao.
Journalists following the slow progress of the case of the so-called “Maguindanao massacre” are to hold simultaneous rallies on Monday to protest the decision of Justice Alberto Agra to drop murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan, the suspended governor of the five-province Muslim autonomous region; and his uncle Akmad Ampatuan, the province deputy governor of Maguindanao.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said journalists in Bacolod City in Negros province have already organized a rally on Sunday.
The families of those killed in the massacre will also have a press conference on Monday in General Santos City in Mindanao and so is the NUJP in Manila.
“We have to react. This is very important. Agra’s decision was extremely disturbing. It is eroding the already shaky trust we have on the Department of Justice and the justice system,” the regional chapter of the NUJP said in a statement.
The NUJP is also expected to come up with a position paper about the latest development on the multiple murder charges against the Ampatuan clan.
Journalists in Mindanao said they would also wear black beginning Monday to protest Agra’s decision to absolve the two wealthy and influential Ampatuans.
The two are just some of the more than 100 people accused in the November 23 killings. Among those accused were the clan’s patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr, the governor of Maguindanao, and his sons Andal Ampatuan Jr, who is also the mayor of Datu Unsay town; and Sahid Ampatuan.
The Ampatuan clan is a strong political ally of President Gloria Arroyo, who was accused of poll fraud and cheating in the 2007 elections. Agra served as Arroyo’s lawyer during impeachment proceedings at the House of Representatives in 2006. He and lawyer Romulo Macalintal represented the President in election-related issues in 2004.
Arroyo also appointed Agra in 2007 as chief of the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel and this year as Justice Secretary. In his decision, Agra said there was no evidence to link the two Ampatuan to the murder charges.
The Department of Justice earlier junked rebellion charges in connection with the Maguindanao massacre against the Ampatuans, who were on Friday had been flown to Manila and transferred to a tightly guarded prison in Taguig City where Andal Jr is locked up.
The young Ampatuan is accused of leading the killings of 57 people, including at least 32 journalists, who accompanied a political caravan of a rival clan, the Mangudadatus.
The caravan was traveling when it was stopped by gunmen in Shariff Aguak town and killed and buried its passengers in two mass graves in nearby town of Ampatuan. Among those killed were the wife and sister of Esmael Mangudadatu who is running for governor in next month’s polls.
Andal Jr denied all the charges against them and blamed Moro rebels for the massacre, an allegation strongly rejected by authorities.
Mangudadatu on Sunday said he would pursue the cases against the Ampatuan clan and said he has a witness who linked Zaldy Ampatuan to the murders. “We have a witness that linked (Zaldy) Ampatuan to the killings. The witness was a former follower of the Ampatuan,” he said.
He said they would appeal Agra’s decision in court. “I cannot say what would come out from this until Agra is there. Agra is the lawyer of the Ampatuans in their election cases so we cannot give any direct statement or tell what would be the outcome of the cases,” Mangudadatu said.
Lawyer Harry Roque who represents the victims of the massacre said they would oppose Agra’s order clearing the two Ampatuans of all criminal charges against them. (Mindanao Examiner)