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Will justice finally prevail?

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Almost exactly nine years ago, in the morning of November 23, 2009, a convoy of six vehicles, including two carrying 32 journalists, rolled out from Buluan town in Maguindanao to accompany the wife of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu who was set to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao in the Commission on Elections office in Shariff Aguak.


Mangudadatu, who said he received reports that he would be chopped off if he filed his certificate of candidacy, had sent his wife, lawyers and relatives, mostly women, and requested 37 media members to witness the filing in the hope that his rival, Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of the powerful Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., would not dare touch a group of women and journalists.


He was wrong.


The 58-member convoy was stopped by more than 100 armed men, believed to be members of the Ampatuans’ dreaded private army and militia men, as they neared Shariff Aguak, herded and brought to a hill in Ampatuan town where they were executed and later buried in shallow graves, some of them still inside their vehicles.


The wife of Mangudadatu was reportedly slapped and shot in close range allegedly by Ampatuan Jr. himself while some of the other women, including four female journalists, were reported to have been raped before being shot to death by Ampatuan’s men.


The first people to arrive at the scene saw several bodies still lying near the vehicles with the others half-buried on the Ampatuan hill as the operator of the provincial government-owned heavy equipment fled after seeing a helicopter hovering above.


It was a horrifying scene, described by the International Crisis Group as “one of the worst acts of political violence in modern Philippine history, and the largest number of journalists slain on a single day ever, anywhere in the world.”


“This looks like Rwanda,” Peruvian forensics expert Jose Pablo Baraybar was quoted as having described the massacre site. Baraybar was referring to the tiny African nation where 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu militiamen at the height of a civil war in 1994.


We are narrating the events of that fateful day based on the accounts of some journalists and witnesses so that we may never forget the cruelty and barbarism of that infamous incident and in the hope that the government will finally do something to end the culture of violence and impunity in our country.


A total of 197 were originally accused of multiple murders when the trials began in January 2010, but only 103 remain under trial, including prime suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., and his brothers Zaldy Ampatuan and Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, the latter out on bail after the court granted him bail in January 2015. Twelve other surnamed Ampatuans are in the list of the accused. The patriarch, former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., was also included in the charge sheet but he died in detention on July 17, 2015.


The trial court has already heard a total of 273 witnesses — 166 for the prosecution and 107 for the defense. The transcripts of stenographic notes have reached 59 volumes, while the records of the cases are 129 volumes thick, plus 10 volumes of prosecution’s evidence.  Some potential witnesses have reportedly been killed while others are missing.


And yet, nine years and three administrations since the gruesome murders, not one of the accused has been convicted. The Department of Justice said on Monday that Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes was expected to now set the promulgation of the case where she would decide whether to convict or acquit Ampatuan and the other accused. The decision, according to the DOJ, would most probably be reached in the first quartet of next year, as early as January.


Year after year on the day of the massacre, November 23, journalists and relatives of the victims light candles in the hope that it would move the government to give priority to the resolution of the case and, therefore, show that amid the darkness, the light of justice would eventually prevail.


Will justice finally prevail?


The need to render justice on this horrific incident becomes even more important and urgent in the wake of recent murders of media men that have increased the tally of unsolved media killings, and the recent upsurge of political violence ahead of the mid-term elections in May next year.


Almost every week, we hear of mayors, vice mayors, councilors and other local politicians being ambushed or assassinated with the coming elections -- expected to be bloodier because of the culture of violence and impunity that has been heightened by President Duterte’s reckless speeches -- still six months away.


Convicting and rendering the harshest possible sentence on those found guilty of the Maguindanao massacre will hopefully send a strong signal to political warlords that they can no longer decide the outcome of elections by violence, and that the rule of law still prevails in the country.


The culture of impunity will continue to cast a dark shadow over the country unless the government shows its resolve to arrest the suspects of media and political killings and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law and in the fastest time possible. Finally finding justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre would be a good start.


The reason that the culture of impunity continues is because nothing has been done to make the wheels of justice run faster. The Maguindanao massacre numbers are glaring: 58 dead, 9 years, 0 justice.


Will it finally become 58 dead, 9 years, 103 guilty? Will the yearly candles finally bring justice into the light amid the darkness that has prevailed over our country for decades?


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