BY WENDELL VIGILIA and ROD LAGUSAD
IT was all worth the wait, Rep. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu said yesterday after the Quezon City Regional Trial Court handed down a guilty verdict on top members of the influential Ampatuan clan for masterminding the massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, on Nov. 23, 2009.
Mangudadatu lost his wife, Bai Genalyn, and sisters in the massacre.
But while families and relatives of the other victims share Mangudadatu’s relief and joy over the verdict, they remained fearful for their lives.
They pointed to the acquittal of some of the 101 defendants and 80 other suspects who remain at large. They also said the influence of the Ampatuan clan is undeniable.
Mary Grace Morales, whose husband and sister were among the victims, said the accused could get back at them.
“Hindi mo maalis sa amin na may mga pamilya sa Mindanao na matakot kasi posibleng balikan. Hindi imposible yun kasi nagagawa nila sa mga witnesses namin yung ganun. Ano pa kaming pamilya (You can’t stop those with families in Mindanao to be afraid because the accused might get back at them. They did it to witnesses. What more to the families)?” she said.
Members of three generations of the Ampatuan family were among those sentenced to life imprisonment on multiple counts of murder, for the worst single instance of election violence.
Mangudadatu said he was finally able to heave a sigh of relief as the 10-year wait became meaningful because they got justice.
The victims were part of a convoy led by the Mangudadatu women, which was on the way to Shariff Aguak town to file the certificate of candidacy for Toto Mangudadatu, then vice mayor, for the 2010 gubernatorial elections. Also part of the convoy were media practitioners and members of the community press, including TV and radio broadcasters, who were covering the filing of certificate of candidacy.
Mangudadatu was running against the ruling Ampatuan clan whose members included an incumbent governor and mayor.
Mangudadatu said the conviction of principal accused Andal Ampatuan Jr. and dozens of others only prove there is still justice in the country.
While not all of the accused were convicted, Mangudadatu said the court’s decision brought great joy to him and his family as the guilty will be jailed for life.
Mangudadatu and his family thanked all those who supported the quest for justice.
Joseph Decena, a relative of victim Noel Decena, expressed concern for the safety of the families. He said most of them reside in Mindanao.
“Nasa Mindanao kami, yung mga na-acquit halos taga Mindanao din yun,” he said.
For Ricardo Cachuela, brother of victim Hannibal, said he is worried that those acquitted might be used by the convicts to exact revenge.
Jaymark Jhoy Duay, son of Jhoy Duay of Gold Star Daily, also said their safety might be jeopardized because of those acquitted.
The daughter of Reynaldo Momay, Maria Reynafe Momay, said she needs justice for the death of her father.
Reynaldo Momay’s body has not been found. This led to the acquittal of some of the accused. Momay is counted as the 58th massacre victim.
Rachel Pastores, one of the prosecutors representing the heirs of Arturo Betia, said even if some of the accused were acquitted, the conviction of the primary suspects is “a big victory” for them after a decade of trial.
JUSTICE STILL ATTAINABLE
Vice President Leni Robredo said she was happy that justice was served to the families.
Robredo said there was no other logical conclusion to the case but the conviction of the Ampatuans and their cohorts.
While the process was tedious and slow, the Vice President said, the court’s decision proved “that justice remains attainable under our judicial system.”
Joel Egco, executive director of the Presidential Human Rights Committee Secretariat and a former media man, said the decision is a “cause for celebration for those who value press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights.”
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, con-current chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, said the conviction of the principal suspects is a “triumph of justice” and human rights.
“This latest development has brought back the Philippines to the commune of nations that value, uphold and protect human rights and dignity. For there is no better way to showcase our effective democratic mechanisms than by holding criminals to account for their misdeeds,” he said.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said, “While the promulgation of judgment on the case is done, the narrative on the protection of media workers is far from over. The President and the whole of government see this as a constant trial and are therefore still hard at work in building a nation where wanton acts of violence can be prevented so that any intention to threaten our democracy will not prosper even at its inception.”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes “has immensely contributed to a renewed trust and confidence of the people in the administration of justice in the country.”
“I am certain she went through tremendous pressure and threats during the conduct of trial. I therefore take my hat off to Judge Reyes for her courage and integrity,” Lacson said.
Sen. Ronald dela Rosa said this case should serve as a lesson for policemen that their “duty is to protect the people and not be used as political war dogs of the corrupt and godless politicians.”
Policemen were among the accused in the massacre.
Opposition Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan said the guilty verdict should send a strong signal to those behind the daily killings in the drug war that they, too, shall be eventually punished.
Senate President pro tempore Ralph Recto added: “Justice won today.”
Sen. Joel Villanueva said the decision handed down by the QCRTC restored the faith of the people in the country’s justice system.
“I salute Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes for her dedication and her courage to stand for what is right and just. We hope that our authorities continue to account for the other accused who have yet to be arrested and tried,” he said. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Raymond Africa, Victor Reyes, and Reuters