A member of Philippine Army’s Task Force Davao inspects a passenger bus bound to Cotabato City from Davao City in Mindanao. The tight security came after 57 people, including more than two dozen journalists who were accompanying political campaigners, were brutally killed by supporters of a rival faction in Maguindanao province. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Geo Solmerano)
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / November 28, 2009) – The United Nations urged the Philippine government to fully investigate the brutal slaying of 57 people, including more than two dozen journalists, in the southern province of Maguindanao.
“This monstrous crime must not go unpunished,” said Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Bokova urged the Arroyo government to carry out a full and swift investigation into the murderous attack which occurred on November 23.
The UNESCO is the only United Nations agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom.
“I condemn this outrage and urge the Government of the Philippines to act swiftly, using all the resources at its disposal to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“The barbaric killings of the people in the convoy – journalists and citizens alike – were clearly an attack against democracy and democratic processes. Furthermore, the killing of journalists violates the rights of the Philippine people to be freely and fairly informed of political developments,” she added.
The journalists were traveling in a convoy with the wife and relatives and supporters of Buluan town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu in Maguindanao’s Shariff Aguak town when they were held by more than 100 gunmen from a rival faction and herded to a remote hillside where they were executed.
Reporters Without Borders said at least 29 journalists were among those killed, but as many as 34 were believed in the convoy.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier deplored the massacre and called on President Arroyo to hold the perpetrators accountable.
A key suspect in the murders, Andal Ampatuan Jnr., the mayor of Ampatuan town, surrendered to Filipino authorities on Thursday.
Ampatuan is the son of Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Snr., and brother of Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Muslim autonomous region to which the province belongs. They are political allies of Arroyo, but Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said the two governors and five other clan members are also suspects in the brutal slayings because of their alleged participation before and after the attack.
The young Ampatuan denied masterminding the massacre and blamed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels for the killings, an allegation rejected by the authorities, after many witnesses surfaced from hiding and allegedly pointed to the mayor as the leader of band that abducted and murdered the 57 people.
Those killed were buried in two mass graves, including the wreckage of two private cars and a media van, where at least four mangled bodies had been pulled out. A backhoe owned by the Maguindanao provincial government was recovered in the area and was believed used to excavate the graves.
The Philippine military on Friday also relieved Major General Alfredo Cayton, chief of the 6th Infantry Division, and Colonel Medardo Geslani, commander of the 601st Infantry Brigade, for failing to prevent the gruesome killings and both are being investigated by the military.
Human rights activists also urged the police and the military to secure warrants from courts and search the mansions of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao province for illegal weapons after receiving reports that huge caches of firearms, munitions are allegedly being kept in arsenals inside the houses.
Arroyo placed Maguindanao under a state of emergency and security forces have taken control of the provincial capitol buildings and the town halls of Shariff Aguak and Ampatuan. Soldiers also dismantled 347 government militias under the control of the Ampatuan clan and recalled troops assigned with the politicians as bodyguards.
There were also allegations that some military commanders are under the payroll of the Ampatuans in exchange for providing them security and intelligence about their political opponents in the Muslim autonomous region.
A regional army spokesman, Colonel Jonathan Ponce, said the allegations were serious, but would leave it to investigators to verify the accusations. “These are serious accusations, but let us leave all these to the military investigators,” he said.
Ampatuan’s arrest came days after the murders amidst growing public demand for immediate and decisive governmental action to hold accountable the killers and mastermind.
Lawyer Leila de Lima, the head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, said the Ampatuan arrest raises more questions about what seems to be an overly cautious response by the Executive Department.
“There are many options available to the Executive. The arrest as the first of many interventions had, as many perceived, come rather slowly and we hope that the focus on filing murder charges against Ampatuan, Jr. does not remove attention from the other accountabilities of the government which must be addressed,” she said in a statement on Saturday.
De Lima noted that the most glaring omission, to date, is action upon the fact that the local officials, particularly the provincial and the regional governors remained silent when news of the massacre had leaked out.
She said as the local chief executives, both Ampatuans should have initiated the first interventions given that the killings occurred within their jurisdiction.
“The silence and inaction of the governor, together with the rest of the local officials and police, suggest complicity, if not implicitly condoning the crime. The Ampatuans in their role as regional governor, governor and mayor, failed to order the immediate investigation of the incident, failed to address the public outrage to dispel allegations and categorically deny their involvement in the killings.” De Lima said.
De Lima said Arroyo can at the very least demand an explanation from the two governors. She said the fact that a backhoe owned by the provincial government was found at the scene of the carnage and apparently used to dig the mass graves, gives impetus for Arroyo, by herself or through the Department of Interior and Local Government, to demand an explanation from the governor how public property could have been used to conceal such brutal and heinous acts requires an immediate explanation from the local government.
She apart from administrative charges, preventive suspensions, and criminal prosecutions, De Lima also proposed both the creation of an ad hoc, independent investigative commission and a more creative but yet unexplored use of the Rules on the Writ of Amparo.”
She said Maguindanao is mired in an atmosphere of impunity, the causes of which are not only traceable to the proliferation of warlords and private armies, but to systemic neglect by national authorities to control these private armies and their patrons.
De Lima said the independent commission can be composed of legal luminaries, former justices or jurists, members of the academe, nongovernmental organizations engaged in the advocacy against violence.
On the use of the Rule on the Writ of Amparo, De Lima said: “We can apply for the protections allowed under the Writ of Amparo for the purpose of protecting journalists, investigators and witnesses involved in the aftermath of the Maguindanao Massacre. We shall explore the possibility of employing it to banish, at least temporarily, the Ampatuans and others whose continued presence in Maguindanao and nearby areas poses a danger to those who may be instrumental in obtaining justice for those murdered.”
She said although the Rules on the Writ of Amparo have been used almost exclusively in cases of alleged killings and abductions perpetrated by state security forces, nothing suggests that they may not be used to secure the safety of journalists, investigators and witnesses involved in the Maguindanao massacre. (Mindanao Examiner)