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Trial of Ampatuan Massacre defendants begin

Ten months after the Ampatuan massacre, the trial of the persons accused of participating in the 23 November 2009 massacre started September 2010.

Fifty-eight persons including 32 journalists and media workers who were on their way to file the Certificate of Candidacy (COC) of Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu were stopped at a checkpoint and killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan Jr. allegedly led the killing. (Only 57 bodies were recovered. The body of Reynaldo "Bebot" Momay has yet to be found.)

Seventeen were arraigned before the trial began, but only 15 are currently on trial. The two others--Maot Dumla and Thong Guimano--withdrew their pleas, saying they were victims of mistaken identity.

A few days before the 15 September 2010 hearing, Unsay Ampatuan filed a motion for bail in the 57th case (that of Victor Nuñez). The hearings on Unsay's petition for bail for the 56 other murder cases are on hold pending resolution of his seventh motion for recusation against the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 judge.

The first four hearings
On September 8 and 15, the prosecution presented as witness a former boy Friday at the Ampatuan household. Lakmodin Saliao detailed in court how the Ampatuans and their supporters planned and carried out the 23 November 2010 massacre.

Saliao said the older Andal called a meeting on 17 November 2009 to discuss what the clan should do to stop Toto Mangudadatu from filing his candidacy for the governorship of Maguindanao. Unsay Ampatuan allegedly suggested killing the Mangudadatus if they went to Shariff Aguak. All those present at the 17 November meeting allegedly agreed with Unsay. A day before the actual massacre, the older Andal allegedly called another meeting to finalize plans. It was during that meeting, Saliao said, when he heard former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan say he was going to Manila so he would have an alibi.

On 23 November 2009, Saliao said he heard a radio conversation between Andal Sr. and Unsay in which the latter reported to his father that he was already with the victims. When asked if Toto Mangudadatu was there, Unsay told his father in Maguindanaoan that only his wife and sister Eden were there. The older Andal then replied "You know what to do. Just spare the media." But Unsay said everyone should be killed so there would be no witnesses. Andal Sr. supposedly replied: "Good."

Saliao also testified there were attempts by the Ampatuans to fix the case against them. Andal Sr. allegedly asked him on 11 March 2010 to order someone to give money to former Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza, policemen Sukarno Dicay and Rainier Ebus, and a provincial board member of Maguindanao. (Dicay and Ebus are among the accused in the multiple murder case.)

Second witness
After Saliao, the prosecution presented a resident of Sitio Malating, Ampatuan town. Norodin Mauyag described how a group of armed men led by Kanor Ampatuan stopped the convoy at a police checkpoint at Sitio Malating, Ampatuan town, Maguindanao.  Mauyag allegedly witnessed how the members of the Mangudadatu convoy were herded out of their vehicles and made to lie face down in front of a canteen by the roadside. He said he heard some victims saying they were members of the media and asking to be spared.

Mauyag said he and a few neighbors later heard gunshots and saw a backhoe going up to where the victims had been brought. Mauyag also testified that prior to the killing the Ampatuans' men told them to leave the area if they did not want to be killed too.

During the cross-examinations of both witnesses (Saliao on 19 September 2010 and Mauyag on 6 October 2010), Unsay's lawyers accused the prosecution of coaching the witnesses. Both Saliao and Mauyag denied the accusation.

Three other accused persons were arraigned but have yet to undergo pre-trial. Police officers Arnulfo Soriano and Marsouk Mascud were arraigned last 15 September 2010, while Mohades Ampatuan was arraigned 6 October 2010.

Other detained accused persons have yet to be arraigned pending resolutions of their petitions, including Andal Sr. and Zaldy Ampatuan.

On 18 October 2010, Zaldy through his counsel Redemberto Villanueva, had filed a memorandum to his earlier petition for certiorari. Zaldy filed last June a petition for certiorari before the Manila Court of Appeals questioning the 5 May  2010 decision by former acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra to reinstate him and his uncle Akmad among the accused in the murder case.

Agra had reversed on 5 May 2010 his 16 April 2010 order to drop Zaldy and Akmad from the list of accused in the multiple murder case. He cited the testimony of a new witness, Abdul Talusan, who allegedly saw Akmad and Zaldy present at the 22 November 2009 meeting of the Ampatuans in Shariff Aguak.

The October 18 petition claimed that "it was grave abuse of discretion for honorable Secretary Agra to admit the new evidence belatedly introduced by the panel of prosecutors. Such admissibility of new evidence, especially that Zaldy Ampatuan was not given an opportunity to refute or controvert the same, constitutes a violation of (his) right to due process."

Three other Ampatuans--Akmad, Sajid, and Anwar--filed on 20 September 2010 a petition to transfer the venue of the trial on the multiple murder case from Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig to the Quezon City Hall of Justice "where Branch 221 of the (RTC) is regularly performing it's (sic) judicial functions." They argued that the "present trial venue of the case infringes on the right of (the three) to an impartial and public trial."

They also asked the Supreme Court to be tried separately from Unsay and other accused under a different judge.

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