THE Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Director General Ricardo Marquez, on Monday said a manhunt for remaining suspects in the infamous Maguindanao massacre is ongoing.
“Continuing naman yung effort ng CIDG [Criminal Investigation and Detection Group]… the manhunt [is]continuing against the suspects. As a matter of fact, a suspect was arrested last week,” Marquez told reporters in Camp Crame in Quezon City on the 6th anniversary of the killing of 58 people, 32 of them journalists and other media workers, in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province, in southern Mindanao.
Marquez was referring to the arrest last Tuesday of Denga Mentol, alias Tho Cario Opong, who fell in Glan, Sarangani province.
Police said Mentol is an alleged member of a Civilian Volunteer Organization in Maguindanao and directly figured in the 2009 massacre.
“He was among the original 197 suspects who were charged in connection with the killings,” Supt. Romeo Galgo, public information officer, of Police Regional Office 12, said.
Of the 197 people accused of involvement in the mass killing, only 111 have been arrested and charged in court.
Marquez admitted they are having difficulty tracking down some of the suspects as they allegedly have found refuge in rebel lairs.
“There are just some difficulties involved… some of them have sought shelter, sanctuaries in the camps of threat groups in Mindanao,” he said
The massacre took place on November 23, 2009.
Supporters of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangundadatu led by his wife, Genalyn, were on their way to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Sharrif Aguak town, also in Maguindanao, to file his certificate of candidacy for governor in the 2010 elections when their convoy of six vehicles were blocked by a group of around 100 heavily-armed men reportedly led by Mangudadatu’s would-be rival, Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.
A confrontation allegedly had ensued between Mangundadatu wife’s and Ampatuan Jr. before the armed men started shooting the victims.
The mayor is now detained and is being prosecuted in connection with the massacre.
Alleged mastermind of the killing, former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., died of liver cancer early this year while in detention.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called the incident as the single deadliest killing of journalists in history.
Even before the incident, the CPJ had labeled the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists, second only to Iraq.
Malacañang on Monday washed its hands off the slow grind in the trial of nearly 200 people linked to the killing.
Its spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the Palace continues to “find closure” to the case.
“It’s already with the judicial branch of government. So what can you expect from us? … In the normal course of things, the executive branch is like the ordinary citizen also waiting [for]the outcome of the trial,” he added.
“We recognize that as long as the case is ongoing, there will be no closure for the victims or the relatives of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre,” Lacierda said.
The case is being heard by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221.
Lacierda defended the judiciary, noting that the Supreme Court (SC) had made an effort to listen to the public’s clamor by increasing the number of courts handling the trial.
In December 2013, the SC issued new guidelines to speed up the trial.
A guideline allowed a third assisting judge who would be assigned to handle all “non-trial incidents,” including arraignments and pre-trials.
“So, procedurally speaking, they have made every effort to hasten the pace of the trial. It’s the magnitude of the number of people accused and the number of people that need to be presented as witnesses either for the prosecution or the defense [that slow down the case],” Lacierda said.
The Palace official noted that of the 197 accused, only 111 have been arrested and arraigned.
The lower court, Lacierda said, has heard a total of 178 witnesses–93 prosecution witnesses, 27 defense witnesses and 58 private complainants.
“So what we certainly hope, we certainly hope and pray that the decision will be forthcoming, that we will find closure to the Ampatuan massacre trial,” he added.
Sukarno Badal, a former vice mayor of a town in Maguindanao and one of the state
witnesses to the massacre, also noted the slow pace of the trial.
According to Badal, he fears that he could be killed even before the RTC could decide on the case.
“I’ve told the court about what happened on that day. I was beside Andal Ampatuan Jr. when he was firing at the victims. I’m tired of waiting for judgment day,” he said in a commemoration ceremony at the massacre site in Barangay Masalay, Ampatuan town.
Badal was among those initially arrested for the killing but he was released after volunteering to turn state witness.
The National Press Club (NPC) led by its president Joel Sy Egco–also a senior reporter of The Manila Times–and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) separately held protest marches on Monday that culminated in a program at the foot of Don Chino Roces Bridge in Mendiola, Manila.
The NPC paraded and set on fire an effigy of President Benigno Aquino 3rd riding a backhoe excavator, which has since become a symbol of the massacre.
A backhoe excavator was said to have been used by the killers in burying the slain journalists and other media workers.
The NUJP, meanwhile, held a torch parade from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, where a forum was held, to Mendiola.
Members of the Cagayan de Oro City media lighted candles at the Press Freedom Monument at the Gov. Vicente de Lara Park in the southern city.
The Cagayan de Oro Press Club (COPC) and the local chapter of the NUJP decry the failure of the Aquino administration to serve justice to the victims of the massacre six years after the grisly incident.
“The principal suspect [Andal Ampatuan Sr.] has already died and yet justice has evaded those who died in the Ampatuan massacre,” said COPC president Hugo “Jerry” Orcullo.
““We will continue to remain vigilant and are ready to wage a protracted protest until justice is served,” the COPC and NUJP said in a joint statement.
The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) called for more than just a march or a memorial ceremony.
“FFFJ had hoped that [government]agencies could still commit to doing something about the killing of journalists before the end of the term of President Benigno Aquino 3rd in May 2016,” it said.
“The trial began in January 2010 or five years ago and has dragged on without any visible indication of what the outcome will be,” the group also noted.