Monday, November 28, 2011

Impunity and justice

This was my column November 28, 2011.

This post is antedated.

The whole country commemorated last week the second anniversary of what will most likely go down in history as the most horrendous crime ever committed in this country.

The Maguindanao massacre which happened November 23, 2009 claimed the lives of 57 civilians, including 32 journalists (one more body has not yet been found - ed). Fifteen of the victims were women. According to eyewitness reports, all 57 were killed in brutal circumstances. Some of the women were mutilated. Many begged for their lives while the perpetrators pointed a gun at their foreheads pointblank. The bodies were later dumped into a common mass grave that was dug and pressed repeatedly using heavy equipment as if to make sure the burial ground was made compact enough.

International press freedom and media advocacy groups have designated November 23 as International Day to End Impunity.

Last week was an occasion to remember and to shake our whole justice system and demand better and faster delivery of justice. Maybe because it has been two years since the carnage happened, activities last week tended to focus on the latter.

Some media establishments tried to recall the gruesome events of November 23, 2009, but the general focus of the commemoration, the media coverage, and most of the discussion was on just how slow the wheels of justice have been turning in the case of the Maguindanao massacre. The perceived consensus was that yes, it is a given that the administration of justice in this country moves at turtle speed; the problem is that in this particular case it is moving at glacial speed.

As can be expected, there were lots of screaming, berating, teeth-gnashing and tongue-clicking last week. Many of our leaders grabbed the occasion to pontificate on the perceived weaknesses of our justice system. Some took the occasion to offer some helpful suggestions such as the need to hire more judges to declog our courts of the thousands of cases that overwhelm the whole system. Others took broad swipes at specific personalities – from the regional trial court judge who is trying the case (Jocelyn Reyes-Solis), to the government prosecutors, to the Fortun brothers who are defending the principal suspects – the Ampatuans, etc.

Others took the occasion to display the presence – or conversely, the absence - of mathematical abilities as they tried to determine how long it would take for the trial against the principal suspects and 196 others to be completed. Someone said 55,000 years. A senator offered another number: 500 years. Economist and writer Solita Monsod gave a more realistic number: 25 years. What was clear was that it would take a long, long time.

I can understand the impatience, and consequently, the exasperation. We are discussing murder committed brazenly and with impunity. Most of the victims were not even directly involved in the political war of the feuding families. The media people who were part of the convoy were just doing their jobs. There is no way to categorize massacres into gradations but the way it was conducted was just so inhuman and so evil. We all want justice to be served to those who were behind the carnage.

Having said that, I also think that it is important for people to acquire a sense of perspective.

The principal accused in the multiple murder case are not ordinary mortals. These are political warlords who have been in power for quite sometime and with almost inexhaustible resources to spend to defend themselves: former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr.; suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan; former acting Maguindanao Gov. Sajid Ampatuan; former Datu Unsay, Maguindanao Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.; Akmad Ampatuan; and Anwar Ampatuan. There are 196 others that are also charged with the multiple murder case. These are police officers, members of the private army of the Ampatuans, supporters of the Ampatuans, and others whose involvement in the murder was either complicit or just incidental.

We may have already formed our opinions about what kind of people the suspects are, but they are still accorded certain rights under our Constitution. We are a country of laws so it is a given that the suspects will exhaust all remedies to defend themselves or delay their conviction because these are among their rights. They are still presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

There are more than a hundred prosecution witnesses. The numbers vary, from a high of 157 to a low of 107, depending on whom one talks to. It is a given that the defense would have more or less the same number of witnesses. Each of these witnesses undergoes direct examination by prosecution, or by defense lawyers. Each direct examination would take at least one hearing. The cross examination to be conducted by the battery of lawyers (each defendant has his or her own lawyer) can also be reasonably expected to take some time. And then there are the various legal maneuvers such as legal questions that need to be resolved by a higher court that are perceived as dilatory tactics. And then there is the appeals process, which can take a long time as well.

I know we all want official vindication; we want our courts to pronounce the suspects guilty as charged. We want the drama of having to see a judge bang a gavel and hand down a sentence.

I also think that there is a need to fix the gaps in our justice system and we should do so not just because of the Maguindanao massacre but because there are tens of thousands of other cases that need equal consideration.

But if we really come to think about it, what will an official conviction produce that isn’t already there today? The suspects are already in jail. They have been detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology Detention Center in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan for a number of months now. The suspects have also been pronounced guilty by Filipinos – I don’t think there is anyone in this country who actually think that the Ampatuans are innocent. They have lost their influence. They are vilified and hated. These may not be the kind of justice that will satiate our collective rage, but we must admit that there is also basis to actually grant that our justice system is not totally worthless.

It will still be better if we see major improvements in terms of the way the trial is being conducted. The government can pour more resources into the case such as assigning more prosecutors. Everyone else can help by providing direct support rather than just criticism. Many of the private lawyers hired by the families of the victims hardly show up at all during the hearings but make themselves indispensable in the eyes of the media. And we can all be more vigilant by remembering the case not just when November 23 comes along.

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