MANILA, MARCH 30, 2010
(STAR) By Paolo Romero - Despite the dismissal of the rebellion case against former governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. and six others, Malacañang said there was justification for its declaration of a weeklong martial law in Maguindanao in the wake of the Nov. 23 slaughter of 57 journalists, lawyers and members of a political clan.

“We continue to stand by the public policy wisdom of the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao, if you look at the positive outcomes from that declaration as well as the manner it was conducted,” deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar said.

Olivar noted that Quezon City Judge Vivencio Baclig, in his decision, merely ruled out probable cause for rebellion and “did not speak for the broader issue of the appropriateness of declaring martial law at that time, at that place.”

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Delfin Bangit also said there was basis for the rebellion case against some members of the powerful clan.

“There are options available. We can appeal the court decision. We will present the evidence when we make the appeal,” Bangit said in an interview.

“The decision has been handed down by the court. We uphold the rule of law and we follow the legal process,” AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr. said. “We will tap means that are within the bounds of law to allow the case to prosper.”

President Arroyo declared martial law in Maguindanao on Dec. 4 after authorities warned that armed followers of Ampatuan were mobilizing and that local government operations, including the courts, were no longer functioning.

Olivar also assured the families of the massacre victims of speedy justice despite the junking of the rebellion case.

“This is an initial reversal that the prosecution has experienced but these things happen. You win some, you lose some,” Olivar said.

“But we will persevere for justice for the victims,” he said. “This is not yet over.”

He stressed the dismissal was unlikely to affect the separate multiple murder charges against the Ampatuans.

Olivar also rebuffed allegations that the dismissal of the rebellion case was a compromise with the Ampatuans, known allies of President Arroyo.

“There’s a malicious speculation that the rebellion charges were dismissed to allow a backdoor for the Ampatuans. Again, this is wildly speculative, there’s no evidence offered for it,” he said.

“And to suggest through this kind of speculation that the Palace is interested in getting accused-murderers scot-free in exchange for so-called political debts is really almost slander against people running the executive branch,” Olivar said.

No rejoicing

For most Ampatuans in Shariff Aguak, there is no reason to rejoice over the dismissal of the rebellion charges against their detained clan leaders since they are still facing a graver case of multiple murder.

“Those we believe who are innocent, but were also charged, can now focus on proving their innocence in the brutal massacre in Barangay Salman (in Ampatuan town) last year,” said an elderly Ampatuan, who asked not to be identified.

Most members of the closely-related Ampatuan and Sangki clans here and in nearby towns are convinced the massacre of 57 people last year in Barangay Salman involved only two or three clan leaders.

“We can’t speak more. That’s our honest belief,” a public school teacher married to an Ampatuan said.

A Quezon City judge on Monday dismissed the rebellion case against Andal Ampatuan Sr. and six members of his powerful clan. The Ampatuans, however, remain in detention because they are facing multiple murder charges also before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.

“If there is one sector that wanted the prosecution of the suspects done without disruption, it’s us, for we too want vindication. We were not involved in the massacre, yet we’ve been ostracized,” said another clan member.

“We’ve stopped schooling as a consequence of our being Ampatuans.”

Victims’ families worried

Relatives and friends of the massacre victims said they were worried the multiple murder case might also be dismissed.

“We are so dismayed. The court should not do that in the multiple murder case. We are longing for justice, the court should handle the multiple murder case with all honesty and integrity and we are appealing for that,” said Police Office 1 Eliver Cablitas, vice-chairman of the “Heirs of 11/23 Maguindano Heroes” and widower of local newspaper publisher Maritess Cablitas.

“From the start, I knew the rebellion case could be dismissed. But in the multiple murder case, we have high expectations from the very start that the court will (hand down) guilty verdict on the Ampatuans and their accomplices,” Myrna Reblando, vice-chairman of the “Justice Now,” another organization of the victims’ kin, told The STAR.

Weak case

The Liberal Party led by standard-bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and his running mate Sen. Manuel Roxas II urged the Arroyo government to file the appropriate charges against the Ampatuans and not help them walk away by pressing weak cases such as rebellion.

“The fact that the charges were weak to begin with shows that the political alliance is still alive. Before you know it, it will be business as usual for Mrs. Arroyo, the Ampatuans and other politicians who serve her ends,” Aquino said.

“The government is duty bound to have them arrested and charged with the proper criminal cases that can stand in court, not a sham case for rebellion when everyone knows there was no element of rebellion present when the massacre occurred or even thereafter,” Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said.

“The massacre was pure and simple multiple murders of innocent people,” he stressed.

“What I am worried about is the fact that the dismissal of the case of rebellion could affect the conduct of the multiple murder cases being tried before the sala of (Quezon City) Judge (Jocelyn) Reyes,” LP senatorial candidate Alex Lacson said.

“The court’s finding revealed that the declaration of martial law in that part of Mindanao was just an attempt by President Arroyo to show a semblance of being in control of a situation she had allowed to fester – that of arming a political clan widely perceived to have been instrumental in manufacturing votes for the regime,” businessman and senatorial candidate Joey de Venecia said.

No poll sabotage plot

Malacañang, meanwhile, denied text rumors that Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza had threatened to resign to protest an alleged plot by President Arroyo and other officials to derail the country’s first nationwide automated elections.

The story, which made the rounds last night, alleged that former executive secretary Eduardo Ermita and Mindanao Development Authority chairman Jesus Dureza hatched “a plot to sabotage the elections.”

Sought for comment, Dureza suggested that those who were spreading the rumor “breathe the mountain air here.”

“We just attended the blessing of a big crucifix here for the Holy Week. I suggest that these people breathe the mountain air here and cleanse their minds and hearts,” Dureza said.

Mendoza could not be reached for comment but Ermita said his successor at the Palace forwarded him the text message.

“You know what sir, I got this ridiculous text and I will forward it to you,” Ermita quoted Mendoza as telling him.

“What they are spreading, the scenarios are out of this world, and too much of an insult to the intelligence of Filipinos and to those who receive it,” Ermita said in a phone interview. With Aurea Calica, Christina Mendez, Edith Regalado, Jose Rodel Clapano, Reinir Padua, Alexis Romero, Rose Tamayo-Tesoro, John Unson

'Rebellion charges separate from murder charges for Ampatuan members' ( Updated March 30, 2010 10:00 PM

MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - The dismissal of rebellion charges against some members of the Ampatuan clan will not affect the government's pursuit of justice for the victims of the Nov. 23 Maguindanao massacre, the Philippine government said on Tuesday.

Gary Olivar, deputy presidential spokesperson, said in a news briefing that the court ruling is not yet final and may still be appealed by the government, and is separate from the multiple murder charges facing some members of the Ampatuan clan.

"This is very much not yet over....We will continue to pursue justice," Olivar said, adding that "multiple murder versus the case of rebellion are very different kinds of charges...I see no reason why the decision in one case, on that one particular charge will have an effect on the other case."

Asked if the decision will have an effect on the validity of the martial law declaration in Maguindanao, Olivar said that the court ruled only on the rebellion case and not on the appropriateness of the declaration at that time.

"We continue to stand by the wisdom of the martial declaration in Mindanao. Look at the positive outcome of that declaration and the manner in which it was conducted. There were no human rights abuses," he said.

The martial law declaration also expedited the apprehension of suspects, collection of evidence, secured victims' relatives and witnesses, restored normal government operations, and secured law and order in the area, he said.

Olivar allayed fears of a resurgence of private armies in the province as law enforcement continues to be in place in the area, boosted by the newly-formed Independent Commission Against Private Armies (ICAPA) or the Zenarosa Commission.

Asked about the possibility of the release of the concerned Ampatuan family members for rebellion charges, Olivar said that the case has not been dismissed with finality, and that they also face multiple murder charges that are not likely to be resolved by the time President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down on June 30.

"This will take a while. We were hoping to get to the murder cases by the time the President steps down but because of the volume of those involved and the number of charges, it would be a little difficult to achieve. What is important is no matter how long it takes, to make sure that justice is served whenever that happens," he said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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