A renewed faith in our justice system

Published December 21, 2019, 12:11 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid
Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid

We shall always remember this day – Thursday, the 19th of December, the day Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, presiding judge of  Quezon City’s  Regional Trial Court  came out with the much awaited ruling on the Maguindanao Massacre. The setting was the Court at Camp BagongDiwawhich was heavily guarded by 700 policemen.

Finally, after 10 years.  I can still vividly recall that day, a late afternoon of November 30,  at the EdsaShangrila where we held the first Justice Cecilia Munoz Palma Peace Foundation Awards ceremony.  I heard someone whisperabout an ambush in Mindanao.  At home, a few hours later, the news on television showed  details on what is now known as the worst election violence-related killing and the deadliest attack against journalists. The image of the blackhoedigging the grassy ground for the graves of dead bodies(58 killed, 32 of them journalists) flashed in my mind.

Ten years later, the verdict of the country’s most heinous crime came out with DatuAndalAmpatuan Jr. ZaldyAmpatuan, and Anwar Ampatuan Sr.declared guilty of 57 counts of murder and meted out  reclusionperpetua or 20-40 years of prison sentence.  The rest were given shorter terms or asked to pay damages to heirs of victims.

Families of the victims led by now Maguindanao Representative “Toto”Mangudadatuwelcomed the conviction and expressed relief over justice being served, the refrain heard from various sectors – the  administration, law, media,  and human rights sectors.  Melinda de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Freedom and Responsibility, spoke for all of us who have been working on freedom and safety of journalists, when she said little has been done in implementing safety protocols. The National Union of Journalists had published a Philippine Journalist’s Safety Guide and had been conducting training in this area. Last November 19, the Philippine Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, a project implemented by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) and the International Media Support was released.

It is believed that the verdict would change the media landscape which had been fraught with impunity.  In fact, for the past years the country had ranked high in the Global Impunity ranking (we were 5th in 2019).  This record started during the Maguindanao massacre.

The story of the massacre had been fully documented by one of the prosecutors, Prima Quinsayas in the research and  publication which I spearheaded together with the AIJC.  A team of scholars likewise defined the nature of impunity from the perspectives of political science, economics, cultural anthropology, law, and communication, and  drew heavily from the Maguindanaoexperience.

What next?  As Rep. Toto says, the fight is not yet over. The case will go to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court.  In the meantime, the Ampatuan clan which is still a powerful dynasty will be expected to be using its power and privilege  in putting pressure where it can.

It had taken a long time to arrive at this stage (a lot of analysts thought it would take decades or a lifetime),and we appreciate the fact that justice had indeed been served by the Court’s openness to hundreds of witnesses. The judge’s   tenacity, patience to go over volumes of documents,   and determination  to persist despite all the hurdles,  inspires us.   The fact that more than 50, mostly policemen, and some members of the Ampatuan clan were acquitted showed that she gave full hearing to both sides.

Judge Solis-Reyes is a law graduate of the University of Sto. Tomas.  Over the years that she had been presiding on the case, she refused any kind of security offered her.  But this time, with reports from the victims’ families stating that they fear for their lives, she should perhaps consider accepting some form of security. She is a heroine, a national treasure; thus, the state must give her ample protection.

Thursday was a day of “breaking news” here as well as in the United States.  At a turn of events that US President Trump did not take seriously (“It doesn’t feel like we are being impeached as the US is faring better than ever,”, he quipped), the House of Representatives impeached him for abuse of power and obstruction of justice. “I’m having a good time, Trump notes, confident that when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally decides to send the impeachment articles, the latter would be dead on arrival. That is how much he trusts his fellow Republicans.

Abanganang next steps on the Maguindanao verdict and the US impeachment.

My email, [email protected]