Manila, Philippines - On a grassy hillock tucked away from a highway in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao is a memorial for 58 people killed in the country's worst political massacre. But five years after the bloodshed that had shocked the Southeast Asian nation and the world, justice remains elusive for grieving relatives. 

Frustrated and angry at the country's notoriously slow justice system, victims' kin say nothing short of a miracle is necessary to see convictions, despite repeated vows by President Benigno Aquino that punishment would be meted out to those behind the gruesome killings.

With seemingly no one else to turn to, families in the mostly Catholic country urged Pope Francis to pray for their slain loved ones and during his scheduled visit here in January, apply some pressure on Aquino to fulfil a campaign promise to see convictions by the time he ends his six-year term in 2016.

"Here in this place where shots rang out from guns that ended their lives, here in this place where they had pleaded for their lives, we appeal on you, our pope, to help us get justice," said a letter written by the victims' relatives addressed to Pope Francis as they converged on the massacre site two days before the fifth anniversary of the killings.

It's not acceptable [to have no convictions yet because] it adds to the culture of impunity.

- Justice Secretary Leila de Lima 


"It has been five years since this happened. It has been five years since our children lost their fathers and mothers; it has been five years since we lost spouses who were supposed to help us build our homes; it has been five years since we lost siblings who once played with us, but now are buried beneath the ground," said the letter, read out by Grace Morales, whose husband Rosell and sister Marites Cabitas were among those killed.

Powerful clan

On November 23, 2009, members of the powerful Ampatuan clan led by its patriarch Andal Ampatuan and his sons allegedly plotted and then carried out the crime, in what prosecutors said was a failed bid to stop a political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, from contesting the governorship of their political stronghold of Maguindanao province.

Mangudadatu had sent a convoy led by his wife, friends and lawyers to file his candidacy in the provincial capital. Along with them were 32 representatives of the local media, who tagged along to report on the political challenge.

Ampatuan's son and namesake, Andal Ampatuan Jr and about 200 of his militiamen and police officers, stopped the convoy at gunpoint, marched everyone to a grassy hill where, according to witnesses, they were gunned down methodically despite pleas to save their lives. Some of the women's bodies were also mutilated. In a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, the gunmen used a backhoe to dig shallow graves where they dumped the bodies and vehicles.

One prosecution witness had testified that Ampatuan Jr personally led the killing, and appeared to be smiling or laughing as he fired his machine gun. All in all, 58 people were killed, including five people who tailed the convoy and were mistaken as members of the Mangudadatu party.

But five years on, only 110 of the 194 people accused have been arrested and the rest remain at large. At least four potential witnesses have been killed and others threatened. Trials for some of the accused began in 2010 but are ongoing.

A defence attorney for the Ampatuan family has denied all allegations against them and entered not guilty pleas at their arraignment.

According to rights monitors, the Ampatuan clan has remained influential and is allegedly able to corrupt local officials and order attacks. The lead public prosecutor in the case has also been accused of taking bribes from the Ampatuans' lawyer, a claim that has been denied, but he has been taken off the case.

Slow march to justice

Many Ampatuan relatives have been elected into local posts in Maguindanao, helping to perpetuate the climate of fear and impunity, rights groups say.
Handcuffed suspects in the November 23, 2009, massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in Maguindanao province [AP]

"I am not going to deny that impunity still exists now," Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told Al Jazeera, though she argued that Aquino "will not in any way tolerate these killings".

De Lima conceded that the slow pace of the trial was frustrating, and said she has personally taken over supervision of the case. She said squabbling among private and public prosecutors over trial strategy, allegations of bribery and an observation by many that the judge in the case was being overly cautious have all helped to slow down the process.

"It's not acceptable [to have no convictions yet because] it adds to the culture of impunity," de Lima said. "That is why this is the ultimate test, this is the litmus test, because if we do not get the right verdict, God forbid, in this case then what kind of justice system do we have? What kind of an image would the Philippine justice system have vis-a-vis the global community?" said de Lima.

"It gives me sleepless nights actually [thinking about] how to disprove our detractors and critics. We are exerting our best efforts on the part of the prosecution," she said.

However, she admitted there was a lot of uncertainty going into an election year, with Aquino distracted as he tries to wind down his affairs and fulfil commitments and promises he made when he won the presidency in 2010. "It's not easy to advance a reform agenda by any administration. There is a lot of resistance, vested interests by powerful people who would want the status quo to prevail," de Lima said.

'Get away with murder'

Prosecution lawyer Harry Roque said the odds are simply stacked against them, arguing from the very beginning, the process was "engineered to fail".

"You don't charge 198 originally for 58 counts of murder. It's never been done. Even the international tribunals have never charged this many people. Probably the closest was in Rwanda where they charged as many as they could for genocide - and they know that because they charged so many people it would take a lot of time," Roque told Al Jazeera.

"It is very easy for the executive branch to wash their hands off any responsibility by saying simply that the matter is now in court, not realising that under the appropriate human rights treaty, it is the obligation of all branches of government to accord [victims] a speedy remedy under domestic law," he said.

Roque said the prosecution was still hopeful for a verdict, at least on some of the key suspects.

But just days before the Philippines marked the anniversary, gunmen killed a former Ampatuan employee who was about to turn state witness and wounded another.

The attack "speaks volumes for the Philippines' inability or unwillingness to protect witnesses who are key to securing convictions of suspects", said Phelim Kine of the Human Rights Watch.

The killing "is a reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians of the vicious status quo in the Philippines, in which gunmen with powerful backers routinely get away with murder", Kine said.

Source: Al Jazeera