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The 58th massacre victim

Publication Date : 27-09-2012

 

On Monday, the Philippines' Department of Justice finally filed with the Regional Trial Court (RTC) hearing the Ampatuan massacre case a new set of charges against the defendants, accusing them of killing a 58th victim. Since justice is not only procedural (fairness in the process) or substantive (fairness of the verdict) but also and fundamentally ethical (fairness to the truth), we welcome the belated news as a kind of consolation.

Photojournalist Reynaldo Momay of General Santos City was among those who perished during the grisly, horrifying mass-murdering spree in Maguindanao on Nov 23, 2009, but unlike the 57 other victims, his body was never recovered.

Enough evidence, eyewitness accounts among them, existed to prove that Momay had in fact been in the convoy that the private army of the powerful Ampatuan clan intercepted on that fateful day.

Dentures found in the massacre site have been identified as Momay’s by the person who made them. It took some time, and the persistent prompting of Momay’s daughter, Ma. Reynafe Momay-Castillo, who even filed a murder case against the suspects last January, before the DOJ concluded in a resolution dated July 12 that Momay was, in truth, a massacre victim. On Monday, prosecutors filed an amended complaint with the Quezon City RTC.

Some of us may wonder: Does it matter? What is the legal difference between prosecuting a multiple-murder case with 57 victims and another with 58? As it happens, there are legal consequences. While Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has not yet ruled on the matter, it is possible that the defendants will have to be arraigned once more—training the focus yet again on clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former governor of Maguindanao, and his son Zaldy, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. And if conviction is the verdict, the sentence will increase correspondingly.

But it is already a matter of justice that the record has been set straight. The worst peacetime mass murder in Philippine history, we must now tell ourselves and the generations that come after us, claimed a total of 58 lives, not 57. The worst single attack on journalists in the world, ever, killed 33 media workers, not 32.

At the same time, the belated addition to the list of victims of the Ampatuan massacre should also remind all of us that, while 197 suspects are included in the charge sheets, only 96 have been arrested and only 78 arraigned. It might take some more time, and some persistent prompting on everyone’s part, but the long arm of the law must hunt down every single one of the suspects. That is a matter of justice, too.

It is important, however, to mark each milestone on the tortuous path to justice. We join Momay’s family and friends in welcoming the DOJ’s finding and the filing of the revised complaint. At the same time, we are keenly aware that while his inclusion in the official list of massacre victims must come as a vindication, the fact that his remains are missing means full closure may always be just out of reach.

The Ampatuan massacre happened only because political circumstances in a turbulent and polarizing decade made it inevitable.

That is why the government-issued backhoe found at the crime scene in Barangay Salman in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, is the massacre’s gruesome symbol; the insane idea that killing off dozens of people involved in a high-profile political event can be denied simply by burying them (and some of the vehicles they happened to be in) six feet under the ground could only have arisen in a culture of impunity.

Members of the Ampatuan clan, enjoying undisputed control of their province and unqualified support from a presidency they helped entrench, must have thought they could get away with anything.
In that sense, then, we are all victims.

The massacre was a vicious assault on the social contracts that underwrite a democracy: the idea that running for office is a right, that all political power is temporary, that the media are a countervailing factor in society, that those who rule are accountable to the people; not least, that the ballot is mightier than the bullet.

Momay represents the powerless ordinary citizen caught in a trap that unscrupulous politicians made. But here’s the thing: That his body cannot be found turns him into a symbol, too. With him, and with his family’s leave, we can all say: We are the 58th.

 

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