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Will Philippines High Court resolution on Ampatuan case hasten the trial's conduct?

The Supreme Court (SC) issued a resolution on 10 December 2013 providing guidelines that are clearly designed to hasten the conduct of the trial of the accused for the massacre in Maguindanao in 2009. Into its fourth year, the trial has not sustained the media attention that it deserved. For very good reason, the glacial pace of the trial and the complexity of the process wither any reportorial effort to stay with the story.

Unfortunately, government officials in the executive and legislative branches seemed to have lacked the focus that would have them speak or act on the issue of undue court delays; or were held back lest anyone be seen as interfering with the separate and equal power of the judiciary. The resolution was the first significant sign that the slow pace of justice was a matter of significant official concern.

In a recent column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban described the Ampatuan case as a "litmus test of our judicial system and the officials tending it (especially the President and the justices)." He welcomed the directives with "fresh hopes" that these cases will move faster toward justice.

But the development went under the radar of most news media. The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility's (CMFR) monitor of this coverage noted that on the day after the announcement to the press, only Solar Network News gave it any time in the 6 o'clock news budget. The dailies - The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard Today, BusinessWorld, and BusinessMirror - noted it with spot reports on inside pages.

Perhaps because of the holidays, the announcement was hardly noted even by advocate groups, including CMFR; and only in January 2014 did some of us begin to think on its implications and the basis for "fresh hopes."

I think the Supreme Court resolutions reflect an important message from the High Court that the slowness of the normal process of litigation must adjust itself in this case. It gave five directions that apply for this case only. The first is the implementation of the Judicial Affidavit Rule, which allows witness' testimonies to be submitted by affidavit. The second enjoins the presiding judge to hold separate trials for those accused for whom the prosecution had no further evidence to present. The third authorized the judge to issue separate decisions or resolutions in any of the 58 cases, even before all evidence for all accused has been presented. Fourth is the authorized assignment of a third Assisting Judge to handle non-trial aspects. And the fifth authorizes these judges to decide on petitions and motions despite pending related decisions that have been taken up in other higher courts.

We would have to appreciate how these represent radical steps to abbreviate the legal procedures that can take so much time, most of which are only used as mechanisms to delay and to buy time on the part of the defense. The option for separate trials and decisions, for example, can allow the court to process the cases of the accused in groups, depending on the level of their participation in the conspiracy; rather than simply lumping the accused altogether as actors acting in equal capacity in one crime.

When in the early stage of Department of Justice's (DOJ) investigation, Justice officials under the Arroyo administration decided to include all the persons named in the National Bureau of Investigation and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group lists of persons involved, it created the basis of a trial of such length as to be inherently unjust. The resolution opens up the way by which the massive trial can, as it were, be broken down into its separate parts and pieces, with the court addressing the different circumstances with appropriate judicial prudence and action.

In this country, official action is never as simple as it seems. The High Court's resolution should be welcomed. But the press and the public must be enjoined also to be watchful about its effects, or lack of effect.
CMFR with the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) supports the work of Atty. Prima Quinsayas, a private prosecutor representing 17 families of victims of the massacre. Her updates enable us to track the case. Only a week ago, less than a month after the SC resolution, the arraignment of Talembo "Tammy" Masukat, alleged to be a chief strategist for the Ampatuan clan, was deferred once again, for the seventh time - to await the still pending ruling of the higher court on a "habeas corpus" case filed on Masukat's behalf. So in the exercise of judicial discretion, which the Supreme Court resolution allows the presiding judge, the fifth directive of the High Court can be ignored.

In this country, the statement of good policy often elicits relief and the expectation that much needed action will be forthcoming. But long experience with how agents of power move show that such policies can continue to be observed more in the breach.

The resolution to have full effect also calls the DOJ to work to meet the challenge. The possibility of separate trials and separate decisions will require more DOJ prosecutors to be assigned to litigate. Anyone who is brought in new to the case will have so much work to catch up on the case which generated, according to Panganiban's count, "71 volulmes of case records and 38 volumes of transcripts of stenographic notes (TSNs). A total of 139 witnesses have given testimonies. And 560 petitions, motions and manifestations have been filed by the parties involved." The reality is that this is not the only case on the DOJ table. We would have to see what steps DOJ will take to implement this new framework.

This new framework also calls for more than the piddling or passing action of media. If the trial is a litmus test for our justice system, then media must include it in different ways in the news agenda. With the help of lawyers, the media can serve the cause of justice by tracking how the course of the trial in Regional Trial Court Brach 221 in Quezon City has moved in observance of these directives and whether these have had any real effect on the prospects of the case.

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