Monday, April 19, 2010

DoJ order to clear 2 Ampatuans assailed

Protesters suspect ‘collusion’
By Christine Avendaño, Dona Pazzibugan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:30:00 04/18/2010

Filed Under: Maguindanao Massacre, Media killings, Crime and Law and Justice

MANILA, Philippines-A Justice Department move to drop murder charges against two members of the Ampatuan clan who were previously implicated in the Maguindanao massacre has reaped a whirlwind of protests.

One senator lambasted the action of Justice Secretary Alberto Agra as pure hogwash. Others suspected it was done in exchange for votes for President Macapagal-Arroyo’s candidates in the May 10 elections, while one lawyer said it proved the victims of the massacre would not get justice under the present administration.

A Roman Catholic Church official, Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez, said one could not help but suspect “a collusion” between the administration and the Ampatuans.

The protests were sparked by Agra’s order to state prosecutors to drop the murder indictments against Zaldy Ampatuan, the suspended governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and Mayor Akmad Ampatuan Sr.

The two officials are among 197 people facing charges of murder for the massacre of 57 people—including 32 media workers—in an ambush in Maguindanao province in November last year.

A total of 23 members of the Ampatuan clan have been charged with murder. Six of them are now detained, including the patriarch, Andal Sr., and his sons—Andal Jr., Zaldy and Sajid, who is acting governor of Maguindanao.

‘Terribly fishy’

Bracing himself for the backlash from his unpopular decision, Agra said the government would still pursue the rebellion cases against Zaldy Ampatuan and more than 100 other relatives and supporters charged in those cases.

The rebellion charges were previously dismissed by a Quezon City judge for lack of probable cause.

Malacañang yesterday also tried to shield itself from the whirlwind.

“It is obscene to insinuate that the President would interfere for any kind of political or personal reason in the legal proceedings of a heinous crime like the Maguindanao massacre,” President Macapagal-Arroyo’s deputy spokesperson Gary Olivar said on radio dzBB.

Olivar said Ms Arroyo’s critics should “confine any debate to questions of law and fact.”
He added: “Campaign politics … should not be raked up in this tragic affair.”

Maverick Sen. Joker Arroyo deplored the “unbecoming haste” with which the government dropped the charges against the two Ampatuans, and said he found it “terribly fishy.”

In a statement, Arroyo assailed Agra for saying that Zaldy Ampatuan could go free if the judge trying the case would agree. “This is a lot of hogwash,” he said.

Also enraged was Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who said Agra’s move was “suspicious” because it involved a political ally of Ms Arroyo and it was done with the elections just around the corner.

Pimentel said it would have been more “prudent” for the DOJ to allow the courts to clear the Ampatuans and not itself take the initiative of doing so.

In exchange for votes?

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, Liberal Party campaign manager, condemned the Arroyo administration and said: “Is this a deliberate move meant to free a political kingpin in order to deliver the votes to Arroyo’s anointed come May 2010?”

Pangilinan described the DOJ decision as “rotten to the core, a shameless whitewash of the highest order.”

Bishop Iñiguez, who heads the public affairs committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said it was natural to have apprehensions about Agra’s decision.

“We can’t be stopped from having doubts that there might be a collusion between the Ampatuans and the government. It’s possible that Governor Ampatuan is an ally of the government, which is why he was cleared in the case,” Iñiguez said in an interview on Radio Veritas.

“The decision dropping murder charges against them was so sly and done on a weekend when no one was looking,” said Harry Roque, a private prosecutor representing some of the victims’ families. “It is so brazen and shows that justice will not be reached in this administration.”

Agra said Zaldy Ampatuan should be held liable for rebellion.

“We already filed a motion for reconsideration (of the Quezon City court’s dismissal of the rebellion cases) … We are standing by our findings that there was rebellion in the province and Governor Zaldy was involved,” Agra said.

Agra said his decision to exclude Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan from the murder case was not influenced by the Ampatuans’ supposed close ties with Ms Arroyo.

“I based my decision on records before me and not because of that,” he said. “I also would like to think this will not affect the charges against the other accused in the multiple murder case.”

He said there was no strong proof that Zaldy and Akmad were part of the conspiracy to kill the members of the rival Mangudadatu clan and the journalists.

Zaldy said he was in Davao City on Nov. 23, the day of the massacre, and left for Manila the same day to meet with Ms Arroyo and Muslim politicians.

With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Gil Cabacungan and AFP
With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Gil Cabacungan and AFP

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