In memory of the Maguindanao massacre

MANILA  (AFP) – The Philippine Supreme Court announced steps Tuesday to speed up the trial of members of a powerful clan accused of murdering 58 people in the country’s worst political massacre.

Four years after the shootings in the southern province of Maguindanao, there are concerns that it could take years to finish the trial of 108 detained suspects led by senior members of the Ampatuan political clan.

Another 88 suspects are still at large.

“At the rate we were going it would have taken 16 years to fully hear the Maguindanao massacre case,” Gilbert Andres, a lawyer for a group of victims’ relatives, told AFP, welcoming the Supreme Court announcement.

Maguindanao’s provincial kingpin, Andal Ampatuan Snr, two sons and several family members are on trial for the November 2009 murder of 58 victims — 32 journalists as well as relatives of their local political rival.

The Muslim clan allegedly ordered the massacre to stop the rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, from running against one of its members for the governorship of Maguindanao, a poor farming province.

A Supreme Court resolution Tuesday said it will now allow state witnesses to submit written testimony to the lower court handling the case, so that they will only have to take the stand to answer questions by defence lawyers.

It will also instruct the lower court to pass verdicts on each defendant once all the evidence against him has been heard, instead of waiting for all the evidence against all the accused to be presented.

The Supreme Court said it will also assign a third “assisting judge” on top of two others appointed earlier this year, so that presiding judge Jocelyn Reyes can concentrate on hearing the evidence.

It said the third assisting judge will be instructed to handle a raft of motions, mainly filed by the defendants according to the lower court.

Andres, the private prosecutor, said these motions had burdened Reyes and impeded her from hearing the actual murder cases.

Marlo Guillano, the officer-in-charge of Judge Reyes’ administrative office, said 104 of the 108 detained massacre suspects are now on trial.

State prosecutors are still presenting their witnesses in twice-weekly hearings on the case, with a third day each week devoted to hearing motions and petitions.