Philippines vows justice five years after massacre

 Top officials on Sunday vowed to deliver justice as the Philippines marked the fifth anniversary of the country’s worst-ever political massacre that killed 58.

November 23, 2014 Updated: November 23, 2014 08:05 PM

AMPATUAN, PHILIPPINES // Top officials on Sunday vowed to deliver justice as the Philippines marked the fifth anniversary of the country’s worst-ever political massacre that killed 58.

No one has yet been convicted five years later, and several would-be witnesses murdered.

Under the scorching sun, hundreds of relatives and supporters of the victims, guarded by scores of military men, congregated on a hillside in the town of Ampatuan on the southern island of Mindanao where the bodies were dumped on November 23, 2009.

Relatives released white balloons, lit candles and said prayers as they echoed calls to convict members and followers of the powerful Ampatuan political clan, some of whom are now on trial for the massacre.

In Manila, presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma described the killings in Maguindanao province as “a litmus test of the Philippine justice system”.

The 58 victims, including 32 journalists, were riding in a convoy in the strife-torn province when they were stopped, rounded up, shot dead and buried on the hillside.

The convoy was on its way to file the election candidacy of a local rival of the Ampatuan clan when it was allegedly waylaid by the family’s private militia led by Andal Ampatuan Jr, son of local strongman Andal Ampatuan.

President Benigno Aquino “is filled with determination that his administration will complete the unfinished work of achieving justice”, his spokesman said.

The president had challenged the justice department to convict “at least the principal accused” before he steps down in 2016, Mr Coloma said.

Reforms were being undertaken to speed up legal processes, Mr Coloma said, stressing “our people will not accept the slow turning of the wheel of justice”.

But the trial of Mr Ampatuan and his son, seven other clan members and scores of their alleged followers –– 111 in total ––has dragged on for years under a creaking justice system which lets lawyers resort to numerous delaying tactics.

Meanwhile, 79 suspects, including nine Ampatuans, remain at large while human rights groups and victims’ relatives say witnesses are being killed or intimidated to try to sabotage the case.

One potential witness was killed last Tuesday, bringing to four the number of would-be witnesses that have been murdered.

At the ceremonies in Ampatuan, justice secretary Leila de Lima joined the relatives of the dead in calling for proceedings to be sped up.

Families of those who died spoke of how they were losing their faith in the system as others wept.

Amnesty International said authorities were running out of time to ensure their response to the massacre did not become a mockery of justice.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. Five years after the Maguindanao massacre, the cases are still inching through the Philippine court system and not a single person has been held to account,” said Hazel Galang-Folli, a researcher at Amnesty.

The International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has accused the government of failing to protect media workers, citing a continued climate of fear in the country.

While Ms de Lima conceded there were obstacles –– such as 300 witnesses who were due to testify for the defence –– she insisted the prosecution’s case was still stronger.

She also acknowledged the killings of witnesses and potential witnesses.

Ms de Lima said she would keeping helping potential witnesses, adding “we will continue our fight for rights and justice”.

“Justice is slow but it still moves,” she told the relatives.

* Agence France-Presse