All calm, resolute on day one of hearing of bail petition

From Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, to the lawyers of both the prosecution and the defense panels, down to the relatives of the victims of the November 23 massacre, all appeared resolute on the first day of what is expected to be a long, drawn-out trial of Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. who currently faces 41 counts of murder.  Save for the sound of cameras clicking, there was no noticeable tumult from the other side of the court, where several relatives of the massacre victims were seated as Ampatuan, clad in a red striped, short-sleeved shirt and denims entered the converted courtroom in PNP headquarters in Quezon City.

Wearing black and white blouses, their eyes covered in dark glasses were the widows of the slain journalists, who later revealed outside the courtroom that they managed to keep their composure though they started to feel emotional at the sight of the primary suspect responsible for the carnage of 57 civilians being escorted to his seat opposite them, merely a few meters away.

Buluan, Maguindanao Vice Mayor Datu Ismael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu who was also present at the hearing likewise appeared unruffled, even consenting to photographers’ requests to turn to them for a photo before the hearing began.  Also on hand to witness the historic hearing were Lilia de Lima, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, Dante Jimenez of Volunteers against Crime and Corruption (VACC) and lawyers of the complainants.

Even when counsel for the defense Attorney Sigfrid Fortun informed the judge that his client would not be able to understand if the murder charges were read to him in English or Tagalog since Ampatuan only spoke Maguindanaoan, there were but soft murmurs from the crowd that was audible for a brief moment.

Ampatuan eventually agreed to have the charges read to him in English after being asked by his counsel and Judge Solis-Reyes if he could understand Filipino, his demeanor indifferent as he separately pleaded ‘not guilty’ to two batches of 41 murder charges earlier filed against him in a Cotabato Regional Trial Court in November and December, 2009.

It would seem as if Judge Solis-Reyes set the tone for the atmosphere in court last Tuesday, with a firm, no-nonsense air about her, ensuring that the hearing proceeded smoothly without much delay from neither the defense nor the prosecution.

During the arraignment right before the hearing of the petition for bail commenced, the only person visibly pressured and nervous was the clerk of court who at first could not quite understand the judge’s orders to expedite the reading of the 41 murder charges against Ampatuan.  Within about ten minutes of hearing the same details in the existing information of the first three cases, the defense sought the approval of the judge to have the clerk read the details of the main body of information only once, and to enumerate all of the names of the victims and the case numbers instead.

Relevance, relevance, relevance

At the beginning of the hearing for the petition for bail, Senior State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon told the judge that there would twelve witnesses to be presented to the court, to which Judge Solis-Reyes sought a reduction in their number.

Among the twelve witnesses who include Vice Mayor Mangudadatu, the video-taker at the massacre site and several medico-legal officers, the prosecution presented its one and only witness that day, Director Ricardo Diaz, chief of the National Bureau of Investigation’s anti-terrorism unit.  Diaz was unwavering as he told the court how they conducted their investigation and testified on the veracity of the various affidavits submitted by eyewitnesses, medico-legal documents, autopsy reports, and photographs taken at the massacre site.

But defense laywer Attorney Fortun was also determined to block Diaz’ testimony, objecting at least twice within twenty minutes of his testimony, arguing to both judge and the prosecution that he was seeking ‘relevance, relevance, relevance.’

Overkill of Security Measures

Outside there were no violent protests from media and cause-oriented groups, just the frenzy of reporters and camera crews who were not among the limited number of journalists accredited by the PNP to cover the much-awaited hearing.   They jostled to get interviews with lawyers and court observers even before the hearing began at 8:30 in the morning.

Apart from seeking accreditation with the office of Supreme Court spokesperson Attorney Midas Marquez weeks before the hearing, accredited journalists had to go through three security checks before entering the courtroom on the day itself.  Except for accredited camera crew, reporters had to surrender their mobile phones, cameras and other electronic equipment to ensure there would be no live audio and video feed of the proceedings.

Even bottled water and food items were confiscated at the security stations, with one police officer jokingly stating that the water bottle could be used to throw at the accused.  Inside the courtroom, photographers and camera crews were only allowed about a minute of photos and video-taking at the beginning of the hearing and escorted outside soon after.

The remaining reporters who covered the rest of the proceedings were again subject to inspection by PNP officers during a lull in the hearing to ensure there were no hidden cameras.  Marquez had earlier told journalists in a media briefing the previous day that it would be the discretion of Judge Solis-Reyes if she would allow live coverage of the proceedings, but there was no manifestation made to the court that day for such a request.