Timeline: The Maguindanao killings and the struggle for justice

The 2009 attack on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was world’s worst single-day murder of media workers.

Philippines Maguindanao
Families of the the journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre remember their dead. Of the 58 dead, 32 were media workers in what was described as the deadliest single attack on journalists in the world. [File: Bullit Marquez/AP Photo]

A court in the Philippines is expected to hand down on Thursday its verdict in the 2009 Maguindanao mass killings, the world’s worst single-day murder of media workers and the worst case of election-related violence in the country’s history.

Andal Ampatuan Jr, a town mayor in Maguindanao province in Mindanao island, and several of his politically powerful relatives, stand accused of killing 58 people, including family members of their political rival, 32 journalists and several witnesses. In total, the trial has 107 defendants.

Since the attack, also referred to in the Philippines as the Ampatuan “massacre”, at least three witnesses have been killed, while 80 of the suspects, including police officers and soldiers close to the Ampatuan family, remain at large.

Maguindanao mass killings in the Philippines

Victims’ families, media groups covering the case and lawyers representing the victims have also reported threats and harassment. 

While the case took more than a 10 years to resolve, the process is still considered to be speedy, given the number of suspects involved and the volume of evidence considered.

Still, observers say that the government should do more to improve the process of delivering justice in the Philippines.

Here’s a timeline of what happened – starting with the day of mass killings on November 23, 2009:

November 23, 2009

On the morning of November 23, 2009, just months in advance of the May 2010 elections, relatives of Esmael Mangudadatu, a town mayor, were heading to the provincial capital of Maguindanao to file his certificate of candidacy as governor when they were stopped by armed men at a checkpoint in the town of Ampatuan, named after the powerful Ampatuan clan.

Mangudadatu himself had decided to stay home after receiving death threats.

Instead, he sent his pregnant wife, Genalyn, and other female relatives, believing that they would not be hurt, because they were women. For added protection, they also invited a group of journalists and other media workers to cover the filing of candidacy.

Listening Post – Feature: The Philippines: Getting away with murder

But that was no deterrent to the group of armed men, who ordered the convoy of vehicles to drive to another location, where three mass graves had already been prepared for the victims.

According to witnesses, the leader of the group that carried out the attack was Andal Ampatuan Jr, mayor of a neighbouring town, who was also planning to run for governor to succeed his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr.

On November 26, three days after the attack, which sparked outrage in the Philippines and abroad, Andal Ampatuan Jr was convinced by his family to give himself up. He claimed that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front carried out the carnage. 

November 26, 2009

Under intense public pressure, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, an ally of the Ampatuan family, orders multiple murder charges to be filed against Ampatuan Jr. By early December, his brother, Zaldy, and their father, Andal Ampatuan Sr, have also been arrested.

At the time of the incident, Zaldy was the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, while the patriarch, Ampatuan Sr, was governor of  Maguindanao. 

Prosecutors later decide to transfer the case to the capital, Manila.

Andal Ampatuan
Three days after the deadly attack, Andal Ampatuan Jr, the main suspect, surrendered to authorities [File: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters]

January 5, 2010

Andal Ampatuan Jr pleads not guilty to multiple murders. Months later, the court orders the mass arrest of almost 200 more suspects. 

June 14, 2010

Suwaib “Jessie” Upham, a prosecution witness who claimed to have knowledge of the attack, is killed by unidentified gunmen in Parang, Maguindanao.

June 9, 2011

Andal Ampatuan Sr is arraigned and pleads not guilty.

March 2012

Private prosecutor Nena Santos announces that state witness Esmael Enog has been killed. During the trial, he testified that he drove at least 36 armed men in two groups to the site of the killings.

December 13, 2012

Zaldy Ampatuan, the brother of the main suspect, is arraigned and pleads not guilty to the murder charges.

September 2014

Salvador Panelo, who would go on to serve as spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, joins the legal team of Ampatuan Jr. He was quoted as saying that the Ampatuans were “framed to seize political power”, but later withdrew from the case citing “personal reasons”.

Ampatuan Massacre - Philippines
Human rights advocates in Manila mark the 10th anniversary of the Ampatuan killings on November 23 this year [Rolex dela Pena/EPA]

October 13, 2014

The court grants bail to 16 of the accused who are police officers.

November 18, 2014

A witness in the case is killed and another wounded in an ambush in the province. Dennix Sakal, who died from multiple gunshot wounds, and Butch Saudagal were both former employees of Ampatuan Jr.

January 9, 2015

Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes allows bail for Sajid Islam Ampatuan, another of Andal Ampatuan Sr’s sons and one of the alleged masterminds of the Maguindanao killings.

April 24, 2015

The court denies bail for Andal Ampatuan Sr, saying the court found the evidence of guilt against him was “strong and that there was also evidence that he monitored the execution through numerous phone and radio calls”.

July 17, 2015

Family patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr dies in the National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City, two months after complaining of abdominal pains.

September 15, 2015

The court denies Zaldy Ampatuan’s petition for bail.

December 9, 2015

The Philippine police board dismisses 21 police officers for conspiring with the Ampatuans, while 11 others are suspended. All of those dismissed are found guilty of grave misconduct.

June 2016

Ampatuan’s defence team starts to present its evidence.

May 30, 2017

Andal Ampatuan Jr’s bail is denied, and the decision affirmed in October.

August 21, 2018

Zaldy Ampatuan is allowed to leave jail to attend his daughter’s wedding, sparking controversy.

Ampatuan - Philippines
At least 80 suspects in the killings, including police officers and soldiers close to the Ampatuan family, remain at large [File: Francis Malasig/EPA]

September 30, 2018

The Philippine Star news site reports that one witness recanted his testimony against Ampatuan Jr, saying that he had been pressured to testify.

May 13, 2019

Sajid Islam Ampatuan, one of the principal suspects, is elected as mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha in Maguindanao.

July 17, 2019

After nearly ten years, the trial comes to an end.

October 21, 2019

Zaldy Ampatuan is admitted to a hospital due to alleged heart ailment.

December 19, 2019

Families gather in Manila to hear the judge deliver the verdict.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies