Agra to issue new Ampatuan ruling
By Edu Punay
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Embattled Justice Secretary Alberto Agra will review his own ruling clearing two members of the Ampatuan clan in the Maguindanao massacre and come up with a decision within the week.
Agra has drawn flak for absolving detained Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan and his cousin, acting Maguindanao Vice Gov. Akmad Ampatuan Sr., also Mamasapano town mayor, of involvement in the slaughter of 57 people – including journalists and lawyers – on Nov. 23 last year in Maguindanao.
The multiple murder case against Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr. and his son Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Jr. remains, based on Agra’s resolution.
The accused are detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
Families of the victims have moved for the reversal of Agra’s decision.
The Ampatuans were staunch allies of President Arroyo and were believed to have manipulated the results of the 2004 elections in the province to ensure her victory. Mrs. Arroyo’s political foes have accused her of having a hand in the dropping of charges against the Ampatuans.
Malacañang ordered Agra to take a second look at his resolution, which even state prosecutors openly contested.
Agra, in his resolution, said there was no evidence to prove that the two Ampatuans had conspired with the other accused in carrying out the massacre.
“I will consult with the prosecutors involved, and take their opinions and observations under advisement, and give their recommendations the utmost weight and consideration,” Agra said in a speech before DOJ employees and officials attending a flag-raising ceremony at the department yesterday.
The DOJ chief said he has decided to act on the appeals himself rather than delegate the task – as he had promised – to a review panel.
He also shrugged off calls for him to inhibit from the case.
“The resolution of this motion for reconsideration belongs solely to the discretion of the DOJ secretary. And I intend to exercise that discretion in full,” he said.
“It is my intention to release the resolution of the MR (motion for reconsideration) this week. Political timing, as has been suggested, plays no part in my strict schedule. Those who know me know that delay is not my style.”
“Because it is like any other case, where both the victim and the accused are accorded the same constitutional rights, I will not inhibit myself in resolving the MR. I will not create a panel,” he said. “My faith in my own objectivity has not been shaken, for there is no reason for me to doubt myself. I have, and always will, act in accordance with my conscience, and due regard to my oath as a lawyer and a public servant,” he said.
No money involved
Agra said his decision to clear the two Ampatuans was based on evidence “with my heart leaning towards the victims, but my mind fixed on the rule of law.”
“With a clear conscience, I declared that burden was not discharged in that instance. Conscience was my motivation, and rule of law my guide,” he said.
“I will say with a straight face, on the honor of my father’s name, I did not receive a single centavo from any quarter, to release the resolution, or rule in that manner,” he stressed.
Agra also rebuffed calls for him to resign, saying he has no plan of turning his back on the challenges besetting his office.
Instead of just waiting for Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes to act on the multiple murder case against the Ampatuans and several others, Agra caught everyone by surprise by issuing a resolution last April 16 clearing Zaldy and Akmad, who is also the ARMM governor’s brother-in-law.
Agra said he was acting on a motion for review filed by defense lawyers.
He also said he had to act swiftly on the motion in keeping with his personal commitment to address the huge backlog of cases pending in his office.
When he took over as acting DOJ secretary about a month ago, there were reportedly 9,000 cases – some dating back to the 1990s – pending with the Office of the Secretary.
Agra said he hopes to cut the backlog by half by the time President Arroyo steps down on June 30.
The real targets of the Maguindanao massacre were the wife and relatives of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu who were leading a convoy of followers, journalists and lawyers on their way to Shariff Aguak to file his certificate of candidacy for governor to challenge Andal Jr.
Witnesses said they were stopped at a checkpoint along the Maguindanao highway by over a hundred heavily armed men led by Andal Jr.
The victims, some begging for their lives, were reportedly taken to a remote hilly area at gunpoint and executed one after another.
Most of the victims were already buried, some still in their vehicles, when help arrived.
More time needed
Malacañang was not bothered by the animosity between Agra and his prosecutors over his controversial ruling, saying they just need more time to resolve their differences.
Deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar also called on possible witnesses to the massacre to come forward to help ensure speedy justice for the victims.
“Obviously if both sides – Secretary Agra and his prosecutors – need more time to come to terms then let’s leave them be and let them use the time left to reconcile,” Olivar told a news briefing.
“We cannot force this process. The important thing is they started to talk to each other and hopefully, sooner or later, they would reach a common position,” he said.
He noted that Agra himself had mentioned publicly that he continued to have an open mind on the appeals filed to reverse his resolution.
He also said the reported emergence of new witnesses could also lead to the reversal of Agra’s position.
Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza earlier directed Agra to meet with protesting prosecutors and submit weekly reports to the Palace on the developments of the case, including the tackling of the motion for reconsideration.
“The important thing is for justice in the end to be served, however long it may need to take,” Olivar said.
A day after the issuance of Agra’s order, state prosecutors walked out of their offices in protest.
“We are deeply concerned that the resolution will all the more convince a long skeptical public that our criminal justice system is impotent when the accused are politically influential,” chief state prosecutor Claro Arellano told reporters after the walkout.
“With all due respect (to Secretary Agra), we still believe that there was probable cause in the case,” Arellano said. With Paolo Romero