Seven years after Philippine massacre, families still wait for justice

MANILA, Philippines — Journalists and relatives of victims of the 2009 massacre in the southern Philippines that left 58 people dead, half of them media workers, on Wednesday marched to the presidential palace to protest the absence of convictions in the ongoing trial seven years since the killings took place.

The march, a Mass and a candle-light at a southern cemetery where some of the victims are buried marked the anniversary of the Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Ampatuan town, the bloodiest election-related killings in the Philippines and the world’s worst single attack on journalists.

The victims were traveling in a convoy of vehicles when they were flagged down and escorted to a hilltop opening where police and gunmen loyal to a local warlord are accused of summarily executing them and burying them in mass graves. The brazen killing was supposed to prevent the provincial strongman’s rival from contesting elections in one of the poorest and most violent corners of the country.

“It’s been seven years but we have not seen any progress,” Arlene Lupogan, a widow of one of the slain journalists, told reporters as she suppressed her tears. “It is so painful for us that every year we are here but nothing has changed.”

Mary Grace Morales, whose husband and sister were among the 32 media workers killed, lamented that the previous administration’s promise to convict the perpetrators came to nothing. She said families of the victims want to seek a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte to call for justice.

“We cannot do anything but hope,” she said in a telephone interview from southern General Santos City.

Amnesty International expressed disappointment that two consecutive administrations have failed to provide effective and swift justice for the victims and their families, with the trial marked by delays. It said it has yet to see Duterte’s genuine commitment to protect press freedom beyond mere rhetoric.

The trial has been the biggest in the country, with at least 197 people charged, including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao province, and 112 people arrested and arraigned. The suspects have denied the charges against them.

Amnesty said that suspected perpetrators have posted bail, witnesses have been killed and private armies continue to operate, employed by the same families in Maguindanao province, where the massacre occurred.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it sees a resurgence of threats and assaults on the independent Philippine press under Duterte, “who would brook absolutely no criticism of his person or his policies.”

But Duterte’s spokesman, Martin Andanar, said the president is determined to prevent a repeat of the massacre and to protect journalists.

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