Zaldy’s gambit

Almost two years after his arrest in connection with the Maguindanao massacre, detained former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan has yet to be arraigned. This means that the case against him, unlike that of his father and brother, has hardly begun. His biggest wish is to be taken off the list of the accused before he is formally indicted. That is his objective. All the talk about him offering to turn state witness so he might testify against his own relatives is a presumption made by others. His statements to media are neither here nor there. The only explicit thing he has said is that he had nothing to do with the crime.

Gambit is a term used in chess to refer to a move where a piece, usually a pawn, is sacrificed in anticipation of a future advantage. This is exactly how we may think of Zaldy’s sudden need to tell what he knows, not only of the Maguindanao massacre but of the many other ways his family colluded with the Arroyos in illicit ventures like poll fraud and bloated public works projects.

Zaldy’s gambit, however, has not entailed much of a sacrifice. What he has said so far about the gruesome events of November 2009 is of little value to the prosecution. Other than to assert that he does not care who gets hit by the information he said he would divulge, he sheds no new light on the case. Indeed, he blames his kin for the dire situation in which he finds himself, and claims that he has initiated legal action to drop the Ampatuan name from the surnames of his children. Yet he has not said anything that may even remotely reinforce the case against his father or brother. He has only reiterated his innocence, insisting that he was not present at any meeting to plan the ambush. How can anyone even think that he would make a suitable state witness?

Clearly, his wish to be taken out of the charge sheet is the sole motive driving Zaldy’s unexpected offer to talk about the secrets of the Maguindanao empire that his notorious father once headed. Because of his relatively more polished demeanor and better education, many people see him as the least guilty among the Ampatuans. Zaldy exploits this image in order to project the view that a modern politician like him cannot possibly be so stupid as to participate in the planning of something so crude and barbaric as the Maguindanao massacre. This view is not entirely implausible. I have heard it mentioned a few times by well-informed people in Mindanao.

Zaldy’s problem is how to prove he is innocent, given that a witness has already said that he was present at the meeting where his father, Andal Sr., gave the order to kill the entire Mangudadatu convoy. He would have to say he was a passive and unwilling participant or, better that he opposed the plan, in which case he would have to pin down Andal Sr. and Andal Jr. as the masterminds. I don’t believe this is the line he wants to pursue. Still, the government has been attentive, but it is far from taking the bait.

And so, Zaldy offers another gambit. Though not related to the Maguindanao massacre, this one is no less captivating. It comes in the person of Lintang Bedol, the fugitive former election supervisor of Maguindanao province. Zaldy says that Bedol holds the key to how the Maguindanao election returns in the midterm election of 2007 were falsified in order to produce a 12-0 win for the Arroyo administration’s senatorial candidates. Bedol supposedly was instructed by Andal Sr. who was allegedly ordered by Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, husband of the former president, to doctor the results. This story is not new, but hard evidence to prove it has remained scarce. Bedol, who is believed to have kept the genuine returns, was arrested in 2007 for refusing to appear before the Commission on Elections. He posted bail and promptly disappeared, like his mentor Virgilio Garcillano, who went into hiding after the 2004 presidential election.

But, the other day, as if on cue, the elusive Bedol came out of hiding. In an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News’ Anthony Taberna, who first broke the Zaldy Ampatuan story, Bedol confirms nearly every sentence in Zaldy’s account. But talk is not enough; the public wants solid proof. Does Bedol or Zaldy have the real election returns? This is a matter of particular urgency to Koko Pimentel who, for the last four years, has been trying to recover the votes taken from him in places like Maguindanao. He has to persuade the Senate Electoral Tribunal that the senator who sits among them as the winner of the 12th senatorial slot in 2007, Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, stole the seat that rightfully belongs to him.

Bedol is clearly an Ampatuan man. But like Zaldy, he has not said or shown anything that can stand up in court. For the kind of positional advantage they seek, Zaldy risks little and offers nothing significant. Is there more?

It would be foolish for the government to engage Zaldy on his own terms. Harry Roque, one of the private lawyers for the relatives of the Maguindanao massacre victims, hit the nail on the head when he said: “Zaldy is the most dangerous of the Ampatuans because he not only has a gun but also a brain.” To release him from detention now, even if only provisionally, is to risk allowing the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled Maguindanao for decades, to recover its wealth and use this to regain its power. It will not only deter witnesses from testifying against them, it will also turn the clock back for democracy in that part of the country.

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