By Raïssa Robles
In journalism, you’re not supposed to start your stories with questions.
But in the case of the 2009 massacre of 57 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, I think the questions are the story itself.
I don’t have the answers to these questions two years after the bloodbath.
Maybe Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the former President of the Strong Republic, can answer these questions in court where relatives of 15 victims have filed a 15-million-peso civil suit against her.
For starters, why did she declare early on that the Ampatuans were suspected rebels instead of suspected murderers?
Was that a way to nab them?
Or perhaps to get them off the hook through the clever use of the “Hernandez doctrine”? This is based on a landmark Supreme Court decision which states that crimes like multiple murder are absorbed into the crime of rebellion. A rebel cannot be tried for murder and at the same time for rebellion.
Therefore, if the rebellion case is dismissed, the “rebel” cannot anymore be tried for any murder he committed while in the act of rebellion.
Now what does this have to do with the Ampatuans, you may ask.
The carnage in Maguindanao took place on November 23, 2009. On November 26, 2009, presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza obtained physical custody of Andal Ampatuan Jr., the alleged leader of the band of killers – after negotiating with the father, Andal Sr.
A week later on December 4, President Arroyo signed Proclamation No. 1959 placing Maguindanao province under Martial Law and suspending the writ of habeas corpus there.
The move was only revealed publicly by then Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita the next day Dec 5 in a press conference.
Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera, who was also present, justified Martial Law saying:
It was a looming and in fact it was already practically an overthrow of government. The courts were not functioning in Maguindanao.
However, she contradicted herself by adding that:
There were arrests and there were witnesses that came up and the appropriate charges were filed for multiple murder.
Because if the courts weren’t functioning, how were the charges filed?
The next day Dec 6, Andal Ampatuan Sr and another son, Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Governor Zaldy Ampatuan were detained by the authorities.
FOCAP gets exclusive briefing
Unknown to the public, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) to which I belong, denounced President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s action the following Tuesday, December 8 by issuing this:
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) strongly opposes the imposition of martial law in Maguindanao province.
Several groups, including respected legal experts, have questioned its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.
While FOCAP has called for the swift arrest and prosecution of suspects in the November 23 massacre, it considers the martial law declaration a very dangerous precedent.
Proclamation 1959 sends a chilling reminder of the Philippine authorities’ failure to eradicate longstanding threats to law and order, including the existence of political warlords and private armies, which have attacked civilians and journalists in the past.
The FOCAP – born in the dark days of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial rule as a vanguard of press freedom – urges President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to immediately recall Proclamation 1959 and fully restore civil liberties in all areas placed under martial rule.
The Philippine government should go after the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre using the full force of the legal and democratic instruments at its disposal.
This strongly-worded statement was issued a day after eight senior government, military and police officials had briefed FOCAP:
- Presidential spokesman and Press Secretary Cerge Remonde
- Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno
- Acting Justice Secretary Agnes Devandera
- Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for operations Major General Gaudencio S. Pangilinan
- Armed Forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner
- Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Versoza
- Philippine National Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Leonardo Espina
- Philippine National Police Director for Operations Andres Caro II
In that standing-room-only presscon of Dec 7, the officials collectively justified turning the Ampatuans into rebels instead of the alleged monsters who murdered in broad daylight 57 people, mainly journalists. And then tried to bury the bodies.
Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno was very exact and all-knowing as to the date when the Ampatuans and their followers suddenly turned into rebels – November 26, 2009 – after Andal Ampatuan Jr. was turned over to the government without handcuffs.
Justice Secretary Devanadera, who was seated beside him, agreed.
Puno told us:
On November 26, when action was being taken against suspects on multiple murder – apparently all these forces (rostered policemen and various kinds of civilian militia men) switched their allegiance to their family (the Ampatuans).
He said that instead of defending the Constituiton and the Republic of the Philippines, “they now become instruments of violating the law of land, no longer following the chain of command.”
This was really the incipient rebellion at that time. On Nov 26 we told the secretary of justice (Devanadera) a condition of rebellion already existed.
Listening to Puno et al left a lot of us stupefied.
Jim Gomez of Associated Press asked Devanadera to elaborate on the charges filed against the Ampatuans. [NOTE: I haven’t mastered yet how to take videos. I didn’t see the bottle at the left-hand corner, but come to think of it, it was probably the most transparent thing that day. ]
Here’s what Devanadera said:
Personally, I had a problem reconciling the evidence the officials presented with the idea that precisely on November 26, thousands of Ampatuan followers suddenly switched allegiance from the Republic of the Philippines to the Ampatuans. And that made even the Ampatuans rebels.
It was also clear that all that firepower was not amassed in a week but probably took months and even years, I said.
And so I asked Puno: Was it possible no switching of allegiance from the Republic to the Ampatuans took place (and therefore there was no rebellion) because the civilian militia men called CVOs and SCAAs were never really loyal to the Republic but only to the Ampatuans who caused them to be hired in the first place?
General Pangilinan answered but unfortunately you can only hear him but not see him on the video. To listen to the general’s reply, please watch this video I’ve uploaded on YouTube –
The authorities elaborated on the “rebel” theme. They described the Ampatuan followers as in “offensive” and “defensive” positions. But the only firefight they could point to – to justify the Martial Law declaration – happened Sunday night of December 6 for ten minutes – and nearly 48 hours after Martial Law was imposed.
Such a brief firefight is nothing compared to those battles with the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf which last an entire day or days. And yet Martial Law was never imposed for those.
How a 10-minute “firefight” could have been used to justify imposing Martial Law – when this happened nearly two days after Martial Law was imposed – boggles the mind.
A bit of context
Before Martial Law was imposed in Maguindanao, the Ampatuans were known worldwide as the prime suspects in the deliberate liquidation of 57 people, mainly journalists. This has set a world record for the worst one-day killing of media men in peace time, while covering a democratic exercise.
To understand how stupefied many of us at FOCAP were at the sudden declaration of Martial Law to catch the Ampatuans, let me give this background.
For many FOCAP members, Filipino rebels are just a phone call away. It is at times easier for us to reach by mobile phone a communist or Muslim rebel leader than a high government official.
And for those covering rebels since 1987, the Ampatuans have never been in our radar. In fact, top officials of the Moro National Liberation Front used to tell me they felt very aggrieved that the Muslim autonomy they had won with the blood of their warriors was handed on a silver platter by Mrs Arroyo to an Ampatuan, whose clan had continuously opposed them during the Marcos dictatorship.
If the Ampatuans were indeed rebels, they seemed to be a different species altogether. By being suspected of killing journalists en masse just before launching their rebellion, they had ensured that the media would boycott and even be hostile towards them. What strange rebels indeed.
Our years of covering and writing about the Muslim and communist insurgencies have taught us that rebels don’t as a rule liquidate journalists because it is not in their creed and not to their advantage.
Even the Abu Sayyaf, branded terrorist by the United States and the European Union, have merely held hostage and robbed members of FOCAP and other journalists who come to cover them. They have yet to behead a reporter deliberately, knock on wood.
Many FOCAP members who regularly take the red-eye flight to central Mindanao to cover the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) know the reputation of the Ampatuans. They are the king of the hill, the warlords, the overlords, the one whose 15-car speeding convoy you avoid on the highway if you don’t want your car to end up like a pretzel.
Foreign and local journalists take their life in their hands whenever they cover in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Do you know that Manila’s insurance firms have attached a permanent rider to their life and accident insurance products that says – death due to non-natural causes is not covered if this occurs in the ARMM area?
It is perhaps in this context that one can better appreciate the emotional outburst of veteran FOCAP member Tress Martelino-Reyes, correspondent for the Japanese news agency Nikkei during the government’s December 7, 2009 exclusive briefing for FOCAP on the massacre. Tress is not a parachute journalist. She once reported for the broadsheet Manila Chronicle.
To understand why she mentioned the phrase “sitting on their ass,” listen to this exchange between her and Secretary Puno as she asks how the Ampatuans ended up with such a huge armory:
FOCAP member Charmaine Deogracias ofNHK also wanted to know when the Ampatuans became a rebel group:
The government had justified Martial Law by saying it feared an outbreak of violence between the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans. It had described both clans as “well-armed”.
Police Director General Jesus Versoza (second on the right in the video) and Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Leonardo Espina dazzled us with an enumeration of the wide array of high-powered weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition they had seized from the Ampatuans’ huge warehouses and palatial homes.
Seeing how well-armed the Ampatuans were, Karl Wilson of Agence France Presse naturally wanted to know if the Mangudadatus had been disarmed as well by the government.
Judge by Puno’s answer whether this has happened.
FOCAP member Dana Batnag of Jiji Press also wanted to know whether the acts of the Ampatuans met the legal definition of rebellion. Dana is a law student at the University of the Philippines College of Law and was once a reporter for The Manila Chronicle.
The Revised Penal Code defines rebellion as “rising publicly and taking arms against the Government for the purpose of removing allegiance from said Government the territory of the Repulic of the Philipines or any part thereof…or depriving the Chief Executive or the Legislature, wholly or partially, of any of their powers or prerogatives.”
Based on our personal experience as reporters, rebellion is being committed by Muslim separatists trying to secede; by communist rebels trying to violently overthrow government; and by soldier rebels trying to unseat the Philippine president.
So what did the Ampatuans try to do to merit such a label, Dana wanted to know.
Click on video below to listen to the government’s explanation.
I asked if authorities had all the while been looking “the other way” while the Ampatuans amassed all those arms and ammo:
FOCAP members were also intrigued to find out who was the leader of the firefights between government forces and Ampatuan loyalists.
Jim Gomez of AP also wanted to know what method the authorities were using to round up the rest of the suspects.
After the briefing, I tried to ransack my mind, trying to compare the Ampatuan rebels with all the other rebels I had encountered. They did not fit any of the current mould.
Rebels usually secrete documents laying out their ideology and plans. I remember that when the Magdalo group first burst into the picture, the president’s national security adviser Victor Corpuz briefed FOCAP extensively on the Magdalo’s ideology, using computer diskettes they found.
All that ransacking the government did inside the various Ampatuan mansions failed to turn up a single piece of paper outlining the Ampatuan rebel ideology. I sure would like to hear the Ampatuan ideology, or does this consist only of using a chainsaw and a backhoe?
If the Ampatuans had turned rebels on November 26, why did Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan hold a press conference three days later to appeal to media and the presidential palace to treat him fairly? That would have been the perfect time to launch their rebellion.
Personally, I believe the Arroyo government imposed Martial Law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus so it could arrest the Ampatuans and brand them rebels.
Justice secretary Agnes Devanadera herself stated as much before FOCAP when asked by Manny Mogato of Reuters for an update on the massacre:
Without Martial Law, the Ampatuans are just suspected monsters and mass murderers.
Manny also asked if the government might investigate the Ampatuans if they diverted any funds coming from the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and Japan’s JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to buying their illegal armory. Here’s Puno’s reply
Days later, Malacañang Palace backtracked on the matter.
What continues to bother the hell out of me was what Arroyo’s deputy spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said:
If we will see later on that the Ampatuans are found guilty based on the investigation, then whether ally or not they will not be given special treatment and they should be punished… but it doesn’t mean that we are no longer friends with them if they are guilty. I think that should be treated separately.
Perhaps, all along, Arroyo and the Ampatuans are kindred spirits.
A month after being taken into custody, Andal Jr. was arraigned in court in January 2010.
On April 17, 2010, then acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra dropped the multiple murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan.
But public outcry forced Agra to reinstate the multiple murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan the following month.
Mrs Arroyo stepped down from the presidency in July 2010 with only Andal Jr. being arraigned in court.
It would take 11 months into the Aquino presidency or June 2011, before Andal Sr.was arraigned in court.
In July 2011, Zaldy Ampatuan suddenly announced that his family had helped Mrs Arroyo cheat in the 2004 and 2007 elections. He offered to become a state witness against Arroyo’s electoral fraud case. He has not been arraigned for the Ampatuan massacre to this day. ]