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Court demands explanation for critical remarks by journalist, victim's widow, in Ampatuan trial

(CMFR/IFEX) - A widow of an Ampatuan (Maguindanao) massacre victim and a director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) are facing possible contempt charges for publicly criticizing Court of Appeals (CA) justices before whom a petition connected to the Ampatuan multiple murder case is pending.

On 12 April 2011, the CA of Manila ordered Rowena Paraan and Monette Salaysay to explain in writing their 2 March 2011 statements allegedly insinuating bias and corruption in the appellate court. Paraan is the secretary-general of the NUJP, while Salaysay is the widow of Napoleon Salaysay, one of the 32 journalists and media workers killed in the 23 November 2009 massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, in which 58 people were killed.

The resolution by CA Associate Justice Danton Bueger quotes a 3 March 2011 "Philippine Daily Inquirer" article citing Paraan and Salaysay as asking the appellate court justices during a 2 March 2011 protest ("Massacre victims' kin hit impending Ampatuan trial") to render a "fair judgment on the petition for certiorari and prohibition" filed by the suspended governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Zaldy Ampatuan.

Bueger is one of the justices handling the petition filed by the suspended ARMM governor asking for the quashing of the multiple murder charges against him filed by the Department of Justice in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.

Families of the Ampatuan Massacre victims and press freedom organizations called for the inhibition of Associate Justices Bueger and Marlene Gonzales-Sison from Zaldy's case, as they did in the petition of another Ampatuan massacre suspect, Andal Ampatuan Sr. Bueger and Gonzales-Sison had earlier inhibited themselves from handling a separate petition filed by Andal Sr., Zaldy's father.

"The Inquirer" reported Salaysay as saying that she had received reports that the CA justices may have been bribed to render a favorable ruling for Zaldy.

The CA said in the 12 April 2011 Resolution that Paraan and Salaysay abused their freedom of expression while threatening the court's dignity as Zaldy's petition has not yet been decided upon. Rule 71 of the Rules of Civil Procedure states that courts have the power to cite in indirect contempt people who commit "any improper conduct tending, directly or indirectly, to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice".

Salaysay, in an interview with the CMFR, said that she cannot find any basis for the contempt charge as they were simply telling the truth. "I hope government officials don't become onion-skinned. If it isn't true, then why don't they correct it? It is so difficult to fight for rights when they want to tie up even my tongue," she said.

Salaysay, through her counsels, replied to the CA order on 20 April 2011. She said she merely aired her "reaction to a 14 February 2011 column by 'Philippine Daily Inquirer' columnist Ramon Tulfo where the columnist claimed to have heard that P200 million [approx. US$4.7 million] 'had changed hands' in the appellate court for Zaldy Ampatuan's 'exclusion' from the massacre trial."

The trial of the 195 (formerly 197) persons accused of planning and executing the murder of 58 people - including 32 journalists and media workers - on 23 November 2009 has been plagued with delays due to intervening motions both from the prosecution and defense panels. Of the six members of the Ampatuan family allegedly implicated in the case, only Andal Ampatuan Jr. has been arraigned. One reason for the delay in the arraignment is the resolution of the pending petitions for certiorari and prohibitions filed by the Ampatuans.

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