Journalists urge Rules of Court review to combat impunity
The speedy outcome of the Ampatuan trial is crucial to democracy
THE SLOW progress of the Ampatuan Massacre trial is typical of how the rules governing Philippine legal procedures have resulted in the delay of the prosecution of suspected wrong-doers, including those accused in heinous crimes. Since the trial began more than two years ago, numerous motions and petitions every week have delayed the proceedings, which as of this writing was still at the bail hearing stage.
In the Philippines, even those accused of capital offenses such as murder can apply for bail. When they do, the defense can require the prosecution to show "strong evidence of guilt" - requiring the prosecution to present its evidence and witnesses even before the start of the trial. Lawyers say that they do not need to present the same evidence again. Bail proceedings can be lengthy, as in this case. The prosecution is in the second year of presenting evidence against some 55 petitions for bail.
As the country approaches the 1000th day anniversary of the massacre - the worst attack on the press and democracy worldwide in recent history - justice therefore remains elusive for the massacre's victims and their families.
Realizing how legal procedures and tactics can hamper the resolution of cases, more than 20 journalists all over the country issued a statement last June 1 calling on the "Supreme Court to review the rules of court that are prone to abuse in order to hasten the resolution of cases involving the killing of journalists and media workers and of other men and women from other sectors of Philippine society."
The journalists, participants in the Advanced Legal Competency Seminar-Workshop organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) with support from Freedom House, released the statement at the end of the Seminar.
"(T)he speedy and credible outcome of the Ampatuan Massacre is vital to ending the culture of impunity which has driven the killing of journalists, judges, lawyers, human rights workers, and political activists in the Philippines."
During the three-day training, journalists learned about the different legal remedies that have been abused by those accused of killing journalists. The training helped journalists realize how the limited coverage and public awareness of the trial proceedings have been helping the persistence of the culture of impunity in the country.
Abuse of legal remedies
Trial proceedings in the Philippines have always been problematic, with court rules often being used by either the prosecution or the defense to buy time for various reasons.
Under the law, it is true that the accused has more rights than the aggrieved, said Prima Jesusa Quinsayas, legal counsel of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) and the seminar-workshop's key resource person with Department of Justice prosecutor Amor Robles assisting.
According to Quinsayas, among the legal remedies that are being used by the accused are the: 1) filing of Motion for Bill of Particulars 2) filing of Motion to Quash 3) filing of Petition to Review at the office of the Secretary of the Department of Justice 4) filing of Motion for Reinvestigation 5) filing of Petition for Certiorari.
In the Ampatuan Massacre trial, the Ampatuans filed numerous petitions in different courts to get themselves cleared from the multiple murder case such as the petition for certiorari filed by Akmad "Tato" Ampatuan Sr. against former Acting Justice Sec. Alberto Agra and families of the victims. Tato questioned the May 5, 2010 resolution of Agra reinstating Tato and former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan in the list of accused for the Ampatuan Massacre case. The Manila Court of Appeals (CA) denied Tato's petition.
The Manila CA also denied Zaldy Ampatuan's petition for certiorari. Zaldy brought the matter to the Supreme Court through a petition for review on certiorari. This has been the reason for the postponement of his arraignment before the Regional Trial Court Branch 221 last April 25. The Supreme Court's Third Division however denied Zaldy's petition last June 25 saying he "failed to show that the Court of Appeals committed any reversible error in affirming the May 5, 2010 resolution of the Department of Justice . . . ".
The right to bail has also been abused by accused persons to delay their arraignment. In the last two years since the trial began, the thrice-a-week hearings on the Ampatuan Massacre case have been delayed by the 55 petitions for bail filed by some of the accused despite the murder charges against them being a non-bailable offense.
According to Quinsayas, one of the reasons why the accused often delay their arraignment is because the court acquires jurisdiction over the person of the accused during the arraignment. After the arraignment and should the accused not present themselves in the court, the proceedings will continue with the accused being tried in absentia.
According to CMFR's database, only 72 of the accused have been arraigned, 27 are detained but not yet arraigned, while the other accused are still at large.