Monday, December 21, 2009

GMA blamed for clan"s unchecked powers

By Michaela P. del Callar

Original Story:

A prominent Brussels-based security think tank yesterday blamed President Arroyo’s government’s political patronage of the Ampatuan clan, saying this allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked powers, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launchers and state-of-the-art assault rifles.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), in its 18-page policy report, entitled “Philippines: After the Maguindanao Massacre” released yesterday, denounced the culture of impunity in Maguindanao and called on the government to bring all the perpetrators to justice, particularly those belonging to the Ampatuan clan, whose members are suspected of masterminding the gruesome murder of 57 people, mostly women and journalists, in Maguindanao province last Nov. 23.

The main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr., has been detained at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters in Manila and faces multiple charges of murder. Several other Ampatuans were arrested with the imposition of martial law.

ICG pointed out that the Ampatuans’ “exercise of absolute authority” was made possible not only by political patronage from Manila, but also by laws and regulations permitting the arming and private funding of civilian auxiliaries to the army and police.”

It also blamed the lack of oversight over or audits of central government allocations to local government budgets; the ease with which weapons can be imported, purchased and circulated; and a thoroughly dysfunctional legal system.

“They controlled the police, the judiciary, and the local election commission. In the wake of the massacre, there are opportunities for new measures in the areas of justice, security and peace. The question is whether anyone in a position of power will seize them,” ICG said.

Domestic and international anger poured over the massacre, which involved mutilation of the women victims and constituted the single biggest death toll of journalists ever in a single incident anywhere in the world.

“The massacre was not, as many media reports have described it, the result of a longstanding feud (rido) between two powerful clans. To call it a feud is to diminish the role played by Manila in building up a political machine and allowing it to exert absolute authority over a huge swathe of central Mindanao in exchange for votes at election time and military help against insurgents,” ICG said.

“This was not the inevitable result of historic hatreds, but of the deliberate nurturing of a local warlord, Andal Ampatuan Sr, who was allowed to indulge his greed and ambition in exchange for political loyalty. He began to change from a small-time politico to an authoritarian strongman in the late 1990s, but his power grew exponentially under the Arroyo government,” the think-tank added.

If the Ampatuans got their start under Marcos and gradually expanded their influence, the ICG said “they reached undreamed of heights of power and wealth under Gloria Arroyo, largely because they helped her win the May 2004 election.” That election pitted Arroyo against a popular movie star, Fernando Poe Jr.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the government declared martial law to facilitate the arrests of the Ampatuans and pursue their private army, which included dozens of police.

The President lifted martial rule after a week, but ICG said “it remains to be seen whether any of those arrested will actually be tried and convicted.”

ICG said the case could only lead to progress on a number of fronts if the perpetrators are quickly brought to trial; the government ends all private and local funding of police and military auxiliaries; asserts far stricter control over procurement and issuance of firearms; and bans civilian militias.

For his part, United Opposition (UNO) spokesman Ernesto Maceda yesterday chided the Arroyo administration for what he called “its mystifying apathy and non-action” despite the revelation of its own acting Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Norberto Gonzales on the continued existence of 132 private armies around the country, 73 of which are maintained and controlled by politicians.

“Yet what has Secretary Gonzales, and those others tasked with crushing these aberrations, done about crushing them? Nothing,” Maceda remarked.

The former ambassador noted that a number of these politician-warlords are still seen in the company of President Arroyo. Many of them, he said, are running for different posts in 2010 and are obviously using their perceived close ties with Arroyo to curry favor with the electorate as the national elections draw near.

Maceda said among those who continue to maintain their own private armies are two warlords in Sulu, two in Lanao del Norte, three in Lanao del Sur, two in Basilan, two in Cebu, and one each in Ilocos Sur, Sultan Kudarat and Abra.

“Secretary Gonzales is duty bound to crush these private armies, after all the incidents of violence that have been attributed to them,” Maceda pointed out. “Yet how are our citizens to believe that he means to crush them when he cannot even make time to face the Senate in a hearing precisely to explain the government’s actions on this matter?” he continued.

Maceda also said the opposition was deeply disturbed by news that a cache of high-powered arms allegedly owned by the Ampatuans has been entrusted for “safekeeping” to an MILF commander. The latter is reportedly related to the Ampatuan family.

“Our soldiers already unearthed huge stocks of ammunition and weaponry around properties owned by the Ampatuans deemed sufficient to arm an entire brigade,” Maceda remarked. “News of this nature must be investigated immediately and a report released to the public as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. will be getting his day in court after the holidays the Supreme Court (SC) said yesterday.

Ampatuan, the government’s primary suspect in the Maguindanao massacre will begin on the first week of January 2010 before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, Branch 221.

SC spokesman and Deputy Court of Administrator Jose Midas Marquez cited the unavailability of venue and the holidays as reasons for deferring the hearing originally set today.

The SC and head judges of the QC RTC have chosen the Non-Commissioned Officers Club inside the national headquarters of Philippine National Police (PNP) in Camp Crame, Quezon City as venue for trial.

“But when the executive judge and other officials of the court checked the venue, it was stilloccupied by employees who have yet to be transferred to another area. So the venue has yet to be converted to a court big enough to accommodate many people,” Marquez said. He stressed that they have also yet to finalize security measures with the PNP.

“We also have to consider the (holiday) season, apart from the fact that we will be holding trial in a venue outside a court,” the SC official said.

Marquez said that while RTC Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes is already prepared to start hearing the case against Andal Jr., the tribunal has opted to defer start of trial until January because of these factors.

He added that even Chief Justice Reynato Puno wanted the trial to start already.

Government lawyers yesterday filed 16 more counts of murder against Andal Jr. before the QC RTC. Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera III, head of the teams of prosecutors tapped to prosecute the massacre case, said an amended complaint brings to 56 the counts of murder charges against Ampatuan.

This means that one of the 57 victims remains unidentified.

The Justices officials earlier explained that they could not immediately file all counts of murder against Mayor Ampatuan because of difficulty in securing necessary death certificates from City Hall. They said they would rely on post-mortem reports from PNP in filing the cases.

Mayor Ampatuan, the fiscals alleged, “with evident premeditation, taking advantage of superior strength, treachery, with cruelty, in uninhabited place and by a band, armed with firearms, with intent to kill, did then and there willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously attack, assault and shoot the victims.”

The Quezon City Police District (QCPD) said security would be tight at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City when the initial hearing for the multiple murder cases faced by Ampatuan Jr. start Tuesday.

With Benjamin B. Pulta

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