Govt blamed for attacks on witnesses

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DAVAO CITY: The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday criticized the Philippine government for its alleged failure to protect prosecution witnesses in the Maguindanao Massacre trial, saying that its “inability or unwillingness” to do so underlines the culture of impunity pervading the country.

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HRW issued the statement following the Tuesday ambush of Dennis Sakal and Sukarno Saudagal, both potential prosecution witnesses in the massacre trial. Sakal was killed while Saudagal was injured in the attack carried out by unidentified gunmen in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia Division of HRW, said, “The killing [of Sakal]is a reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians of the vicious status quo in the Philippines in which gunmen with powerful backers routinely get away with murder.”

He added, “Despite the human rights rhetoric of the government of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, individuals who challenge that status quo do so at their peril. As Aquino embarks on the final two years of his presidency, he should recognize that his failure to address the mounting death toll of the Maguindanao massacre could be the ultimate measure of his six years in office.”

Sakal, reportedly a former aide of Maguindanao Massacre suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr., is the fourth potential prosecution witness to be killed during the course of the trial.

“Sakal’s death also speaks volumes for the Philippine government’s inability or unwillingness to protect witnesses who are key to securing convictions of suspects—including local police and soldiers—implicated in the murders,” Kine noted.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) also on Thursday said the latest attack on potential witnesses in the massacre trial would adversely affect the proceedings.

“Whatever the motives, this latest attack on potential witnesses is a setback that will clearly have an adverse impact on the trial,” the NUJP said in a statement.

Sakal and Saudagal were on their way to their lawyer when ambushed.

The attack took place only four days before the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the grisly killing of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in what has been deemed as the worst case of election-related violence in the country’s history.

“We demand that government immediately ensure the safety of everyone involved in the trial in the interests of truth and justice,” the group urged the government.

“It has been five long years without justice and more incidents such as this latest attack can only bode ill for speeding up closure to this bloody page in the history of our country and of journalism,” the NUJP added.

HRW, meanwhile, described the Maguindanao Massacre trial as one stuck in limbo with 87 suspects still at large.

“Bail petitions and testimony challenges by the defense lawyers of the 110 suspects in custody have overwhelmed the court,” the human rights watchdog said.

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