JUSTICE SECRETARY ALBERTO AGRA MAY HAVE calculated that after an initial outburst, the public would eventually turn its attention to things other than his letting off the hook two high officials from the Ampatuan clan, Zaldy and Akmad. After all, when rebellion charges against members of the clan were dismissed (showing how flimsy and indeed, purely tactical, the rebellion-as-justification for martial law in Maguindanao was) hardly anyone expressed surprise”or even dismay. Perhaps the Palace interpreted this as a sign of waning public interest in the Ampatuan Massacre.
Timing is everything in politics, which is why the Palace likes to release bad news or engage in controversial acts on weekends, when most people aren’t really tuned into the news. It is why the Palace had to let ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan off the hook, now, when its various candidates need all the help they can get, and not, say, after May 10.
If, as the saying goes, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, then the reasons for doing the Ampatuans additional favors now rather than later suggest this is not about friendship but rather a convergence of interests. The same convergence that saw this administration raising the clan to nearly-unheard of levels of influence in the ARMM, to the heights of position in the national structure of the ruling coalition, and which has focused the administration less on giving justice to the victims of the Ampatuan Massacre and more on keeping the Ampatuans close enough to keep them useful in 2010.
The problem is that while the Ampatuans had to be let off the hook in time to be useful in the elections, they, too, helped make matters worse for themselves and for the President, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how what should have been a smooth alliance was nearly wrecked by the Ampatuan Massacre itself. Last Thursday, Andal Ampatuan Jr. brandished two ballers proclaiming his support for Nacionalista Party candidates Manuel Villar Jr. and Gilbert Remulla. He even bragged that he was confident of being absolved of the charges against him if Villar would win the presidency. Photographs of the grinning Ampatuan caused a national sensation, coming on the heels of a crescendo of endorsements for the various candidates, including Jose Ma. Sison’s formal anointing of Villar.
Two days ago, Ampatuan Jr. was, of course, singing a different tune, and brandishing different colors, in a typically brazen attempt to do damage control for the Nacionalistas as could be imagined.
Noemi Paron, widow of one of the massacre victims, bluntly pointed out what the whole stunt was about: reverse psychology. The stunt, she said, would not affect her support for Benigno Aquino III. He has, after all, been consistent in condemning the murders and expressing sympathy and support for the victims; his questions during the joint hearings of Congress on the proclamation of martial law helped demolish the government’s case. In contrast, Villar gave a bean counter’s response to mass murder and completely sidestepped the real issues: the extent to which the administration, military, and police were complicit in the massacre and the shoddy case they made for martial law. Instead he kept asking what the economic implications of the massacre might be. So much for the victims, so much for the horror of what happened.
There is no escaping the fact that the Ampatuans were able go berserk because they had been raised to the heights of power by means of impunity. Impunity conferred by the support of an administration dedicated to the forms of legality disguising the essential impunity of its methods and ambition. Fr. Eliseo Mercado has chronicled this in a series of articles that also debunked the latest tactic of the beleaguered Villar long ago: Ampatuan Sr. lost his position after Edsa, regaining it only after free elections were restored; yet even then only becoming Supreme Warlord under the present administration.
Obviously, then, the last thing either the administration or the Nacionalistas wanted was for the public to be reminded in whose corner the Ampatuans really stand. It turns them into a political issue just when they’re most needed. And it rubs salt in the wounds of the families of the victims who are now in the position of being surprised at the independence of state prosecutors, who are themselves caught in the dilemma of being ordered to participate in setting free the most politically useful Ampatuans.
It’s all very well to point out that the President took an oath to do justice to every man, but just what a sham that solemn oath has been reduced to can best be demonstrated by the manner in which our latest Secretary of Injustice and Raul Gonzalez who formerly held that title, supports Agra on this”defends his quashing of the murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan.
Essentially, Agra’s defense is the tried-and-tested administration reasoning that: 1. It is presumed legal because officials like himself did it, and the President has not said anything to the contrary; 2. Indeed, since silence implies consent, it means as a creature of the President, she basically did the throwing out of the case; 3. If you don’t like it, you can take Agra and the President to court, all the way to the Supreme Court, if you please; and 4. If you don’t like it, why don’t you impeach the President? Otherwise everything has the presumption of legality and all opposition is merely political noise.
But the rewards outweigh the risks. A senior Frankenstein coalition official privately confirmed the findings of a poll commissioned for internal purposes by Ronaldo Puno, which has Aquino leading Villar by 18 points (41 to 23). It’s crunch time for the Palace and its candidates.