November 23 marks the anniversary of what has been dubbed the Philippines’ worst politically-motivated killing and one of the worst single massacres of journalists in the world.
Two years ago, some 57 people, including 32 media workers, were killed in the southern island, Mindanao. Progress in the trial has been slow and there are still reminders of the dangers to journalists in the region.
There are 196 people accused of carrying out the murders of nearly five dozen people, including journalists and family and supporters of then gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu. The group was traveling through a small town in Maguindanao Province on its way to file candidacy papers for Mangudadatu when its convoy was ambushed.
Members of a political rival clan, the Ampatuans, are alleged to have masterminded and carried out the killings. They deny the allegations.
Fourteen months after the Maguindanao massacre trial started, less than half of the accused have been arrested in the attack, and even fewer of those entered any pleas in court. Of the six Ampatuans accused, only two have been arraigned. Andal Senior and Andal Junior both pleaded not guilty.
Harry Roque is an attorney of family members of 15 of the 57 murder victims.
“The legal system, while already being weak and unable to deal with individual cases of extra-legal killings, has proven itself to be a complete failure when it comes to this many victims and this many accused,” said Roque.
Roque says right now evidence is being presented in each murder, for each defendant before the judge can decide innocence or guilt. The judge has not yet decided on a single case. To speed up the process, Roque is planning to propose shortening the list of defendants to 35 prime suspects.
The defense attorney for Sajid Ampatuan, son of Andal Senior, says he does not agree with the proposal. Instead, he wants to have a third day added to the weekly trial schedule.
Journalist Joseph Jubelag expressed disappointment with the slow pace of the trial and points out a common perception among the victims’ families.
“Maybe because the accused are moneyed people and they can hire [a whole] battery of lawyers who can apply all dilatory tactics," said Jubelag.
The Ampatuans are accused of keeping their wealth and power, thanks to unwavering support from former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This week, relatives of the victims sued Arroyo for nearly $350,000, accusing her of links to the clan and of ignoring human rights in their territory.
Jubelag and two other colleagues were part of the original convoy on their way to cover the candidacy filing. At the last minute they turned back and escaped the attack.
Jubelag says two years later he and his colleagues still do not feel safe there.
“We are still considering that threat while we are covering the areas of Maguindanao," he said.
The fears are well founded. On the anniversary of the killings, Wednesday, security forces discovered and detonated at least two improvised explosives near the massacre site. There were no reported deaths or injuries.
Mangudadatu, who is now governor of Maguindanao, canceled his scheduled appearances to commemorate the massacre.