By Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star)
Updated November 29, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – The mounting public outcry and international pressure have prompted President Arroyo to use all government resources to arrest and prosecute those behind the Maguindanao massacre, Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said yesterday.
Devanadera said the President has ordered a “no let up, no sacred cow” operation against the suspects in last Monday’s carnage that left 57 people dead, including journalists.
“The President said there is no let up in the operation. The full force of the government was used to track down and arrest those behind the killings. This is not an ordinary criminal case, considering the President has used all government resources and agencies to arrest the killers,” Devanadera told the weekly radio program “Para Sa Iyo Bayan” of Vice President Noli De Castro.
She said the President was getting concerned over the growing public outcry and international pressure to arrest the principal suspect, Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.
“This is an extraordinary case,” Devanadera said. “The people, even the international community, is very indignant over this atrocity.”
She revealed the President was getting impatient. “You know the President, she wanted to see the results right away and ordered (me) to make the arrest and prosecute them whoever they may be. No let up, no sacred cow,” Devanadera said.
UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Gueorguieva Bokova yesterday joined the international community in calling on the Philippine government to act swiftly and prosecute the suspects behind last Monday’s carnage in Maguindanao.
“This monstrous crime must not go unpunished,” Bokova said. “I condemn this outrage and urge the Government of the Philippines to act swiftly, using all the resources at its disposal to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Bokova said the murder of the journalists was “clearly an attack against democracy and democratic processes.”
“Furthermore, the killing of journalists violates the rights of the Philippine people to be freely and fairly informed of political developments,” she said.
Devanadera, on the other hand, said Mrs. Arroyo personally tasked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to immediately prosecute all those who took part in the killings.
She said the President also instructed Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno and Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales to harness all government resources to resolve the case at the soonest possible time.
“What she (the President) told us was the overall direction – no sacred cows, the entire government machinery must work towards the attainment of justice,” Devanadera said.
‘The operational issues, operational decisions, we will be held responsible for this. But what is important is the overall direction to bring whoever is responsible for this (atrocity) behind bars,” she said.
Mrs. Arroyo has placed the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), of which Maguindanao is part, under the supervision of the national government.
The President empowered Puno to relieve the civilian and police officials in the ARMM and appoint their replacements.
Officials said the move is to ensure the continued operation of the regional government while a full investigation of the possible complicity of the civilian and police officials in the ARMM is under way.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., however, said the move empowering Puno to supervise the ARMM was an apparent attempt by Mrs. Arroyo to escape blame coming from the Ampatuans.
“The President is trying to avoid giving Andal the opportunity to retaliate against her for being singled out by Malacañang,” Pimentel said, referring to the Ampatuan patriarch Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr.
Pimentel said the appointment of Puno could be a waste of time since the delegation of power resides on the entire structure of the ARMM.
Pimentel, as the author of the Local Government Code, explained Puno would remain powerless over the local governments in the region.
“Puno has limited powers over ARMM under the (Local Government) Code. His powers are limited to the police,” he pointed out.
Pimentel added Mrs. Arroyo could not contravene the Local Government Code by designating Puno to take over ARMM.
Bolstering fears of a whitewash, Pimentel said the Arroyo government is again “playing politics very clearly” to “dilute the attention on the problem of the government.”
A Muslim group also raised the possibility that top government officials may be involved in the massacre in Maguindanao to pave the way for emergency rule in the country.
According to Amina Rasul, chair of the Philippine Council for Islamic Democracy, some Muslim groups are not convinced that the Ampatuans should be held solely responsible for the killings.
“The conspiracy may involve the national government,” Rasul said.
She said Muslim elders and religious leaders expressed opinions that the events leading to the massacre could have been orchestrated and those who took part in the killings could have been high on drugs.
Rasul said the events before, during and after the massacre showed that the commission of the crime was well planned.
She pointed out the use of government-issued firearms and the backhoe in the mass killings and burial.
Rasul also said the Ampatuans will not be acting without the belief that they can get away with it.
At the same time, Rasul called on the Commission on Human Rights to conduct a parallel and independent probe on the atrocity.
Pimentel, for his part, agreed with the move to charge Ampatuan Jr. over the killings.
Pimentel added the Ampatuan patriarch should be investigated also and placed under police and military custody.
“The DOJ can proceed with its investigation of Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. and then his father should be brought in for investigation,” he said.
The DOJ approved on Friday the indictment of Ampatuan Jr. of ordering his private militia of more than 100 gunmen to open fire on the group, which included relatives of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, some journalists and passing motorists who had no known quarrel with the gunmen.
Devanadera said the panel of prosecutors investigating the case has found sufficient evidence to warrant the filing of seven counts of murder against Ampatuan.
She said the DOJ would file the information before the Cotabato City regional trial court on the first working day, or Tuesday, next week.
Devanadera said Ampatuan would remain in detention at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) even as the 36-hour period required under the law to file criminal charges has elapsed.
“This is an extraordinary circumstance and we will (still) hold on to Mayor Ampatuan in the detention center. We could explain this (delay in filing the information). We are very much aware of that. We believe that we have sufficient grounds to keep him,” she said.
The DOJ issued the resolution after the camp of Ampatuan waived his right to submit defense during the inquest last Thursday in General Santos City.
The information was supposed to be filed Friday in compliance with the agreement to resolve the case within 36 hours, which was the reason why Ampatuan waived his right during the inquest proceedings.
Since it was a local holiday in Cotabato City last Friday and the courts are closed during weekends while Monday is Bonifacio Day, Devanadera explained the DOJ would have to file the information on Tuesday.
Devanadera also told the radio program that the DOJ has gathered statements from more than 20 witnesses, including those who supposedly took part in the killings.
She said the witnesses had revealed the killings were planned beforehand.
Devanadera also told a separate radio interview that she would not allow Ampatuan to be placed under hospital arrest.
“We will not go with the fad of hospital arrest. We will have him examined first if there is need for a hospital arrest,” she said.
Devanadera said there is no compelling reason to give Ampatuan the privilege of hospital arrest.
Even Ampatuan’s lawyer, Sigfrid Fortun, said he is not in favor of having his client paced under medical detention.
The NBI also said there was no official request from Ampatuan to be placed under hospital arrest.
NBI deputy director Reynaldo Esmeralda said Ampatuan would remain under detention since there was no such request from his lawyers.
He said the NBI medical staff immediately checked Ampatuan’s health condition as a matter of procedure and it turned out that the accused mass murderer is in good health.
NBI Director Nestor Mantaring said Ampatuan might be allowed to have a medical checkup outside only in case of an emergency and life threatening situation. – With Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Perseus Echeminada, Sandy Araneta