The killing of witnesses in the Maguindanao massacre trial has heightened fears of the prosecution panel and other witnesses over their own safety, thereby threatening the trial, a top prosecutor warned today.
Several potential witnesses in the high-profile case have been scared off after revelations this week that a man murdered in February was a prospective witness, said Harry Roque Jr, who is also a law lecturer at the University of the Philippines.
Alijol Ampatuan, a relative of Ampatuan clan members accused of the 2009 slayings, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Shariff Aguak. He was the sixth witness or potential witness to have been killed since court proceedings began in 2010.
Alijol is alleged to have sent the gunmen to take part in the massacre and prosecutors had wanted him to testify
“This sends a message to witnesses that if you testify, you can get killed,” Roque said.
Responding to the outcry over Alijol’s death, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda yesterday appealed to witnesses to accept the government’s offer of protection.
“It‘s unfortunate that it happened,” he said. “We’re urging all witnesses to the Maguindanao massacre to please accept the government’s offer of protection,” he added.
None of the slain witnesses were under government protection at the time of their deaths.
The government is obliged to protect witnesses from harm regardless of whether they want to be part of the government’s witness protection program or not, Roque said.
Meanwhile, the government says it has already appealed to the Supreme Court to try and speed up the trial, amid mounting criticism that proceedings are taking too long and giving time for associates of the accused to dispose of witnesses.
Catholic bishops have also expressed concern over the issue, saying efforts to achieve justice for the victims of the massacre will come to naught if the elimination of witnesses continues.
“It proves how weak our justice system is,” Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said recently.