Let Ampatuan assets freeze warm up search for justice

More than 18 months after the horrific massacre of 58 civilians, 32 of them journalists, in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, the Court of Appeals has finally frozen the questionable wealth of the Ampatuan clan, key members of whom are charged of masterminding and leading the slaughter of November 23, 2009.

Among the 28 members of the clan whose assets and accounts have been ordered frozen on a petition of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) are patriarch Andal Sr. and suspended ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

At the prodding of the families of the Ampatuan massacre, the AMLC said there was reason to believe, among other things, that the questioned wealth of the clan had been used for illegal activities and that there existed probable cause for violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines certainly welcomes this decision. While it may still not level the skewed playing field, it will at least help minimize the use of what is believed to be ill-gotten wealth to subvert the cause of justice.

At the same time, however, we worry that this could end up being a case of justice delayed and, therefore, denied.

Considering that the decision comes more than a year and a half after the carnage, and that the case appears to have moved only after lawyer Harry Roque, who represents several of the journalists’ widows, threatened to sue the AMLC for inaction, there may have been time to, as the CA itself said in its ruling, “unless frozen, the funds in the subject accounts will certainly be withdrawn and the other identified properties disposed of, thereby placing them beyond the reach of the law.”

Given the short 20-day effectivity of the freeze order, it is incumbent on the government to immediately initiate action to ensure that all of the clan’s assets proven to be ill-gotten are forfeited.

More importantly, it should immediately exploit this window of opportunity to once and for all dismantle the Ampatuans’ still large, well-armed, and well-funded private army and arrest the more than 50 suspects in the massacre who remain at large.

This case has dragged on for too long.

To date, only two members of the clan – Andal Jr., who allegedly led the gunmen in the mass murder, and Andal Sr. – have been arraigned.

We challenge the Aquino administration to prove its sincerity when it said it would make justice in this case – the worst single incident of electoral violence in recent Philippine history and the deadliest single attack on the press ever – a priority.

And we dare it to go even further and let this be the beginning of the dismantling of a system of governance that has allowed warlords to amass tremendous wealth and power and reign over their bailiwicks and wreak havoc on our people with impunity.

Nestor Burgos Jr., NUJP chair
Alwyn Alburo, NUJP vice chair