Saturday, April 17, 2010

DOJ orders prosecutors to drop murder raps vs 2 Ampatuans

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The Philippine government said Saturday it would drop murder charges against two prominent members of a powerful Muslim clan over the massacre of 57 people last year.

Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan, initially alleged to be two of the key planners of the election-linked killings in the restive south, will be dropped from the list of those accused, Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said.

"I just issued the resolution. I have already instructed the prosecutors to amend the charges to drop them against Zaldy and Akmad," Agra told AFP, although he said lawyers opposed to his decision could appeal in court.

The decision provoked outrage among the relatives' victims, who have repeatedly voiced concern that President Gloria Arroyo secretly intended to protect the Ampatuans because they were long-time political allies.

"This is evidence that the victims cannot get justice under the administration of President Arroyo," said human rights lawyer Harry Roque, who is representing some of the victims' families.

The prosecution in February charged that Zaldy, Akmad and other members of the Ampatuan clan conspired to murder a convoy of political rivals and journalists in Maguindanao province on November 23.

The murder, which shocked the world, was allegedly intended to prevent a rival from running against clan member Andal Ampatuan Jnr for the post of provincial governor in the May 10 national elections.

However Agra said that, after reviewing evidence, the initial decision to charge Zaldy and Akmad was flawed.

"There was no proof of conspiracy and there was a proof of an alibi," he said.

Agra cited airline tickets and cellphone records showing Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan were not in Maguindanao during the massacre as reasons for dropping the charges.

"There is no proof or any document that shows they were part of the planning. They (the prosecution) only had one witness against Zaldy and Akmad."

The Ampatuans are a powerful Muslim political clan that has long dominated politics in Maguindanao.

They were members of Arroyo's ruling coalition and delivered her crucial votes in the 2004 presidential election, but were expelled after the massacre.

Arroyo allowed them to run their own private army as part of a containment strategy against Muslim rebels in the south.

Zaldy Ampatuan had been governor of a Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines that encompasses Maguindanao at the time of the massacre. Akmad was the acting vice-governor of Maguindanao.

The patriarch of the clan and the then-governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan Snr, as well as his son and namesake, remain charged with murder.

Myra Reblando, widow of one of the murdered journalists, said she was not surprised by the decision to drop the charges.

"This is an indication there is no justice under Gloria Arroyo. She will protect the Ampatuans because she owes them," she said.

But Agra insisted he was only acting in accordance with the law.

"They are entitled to their opinion. I am just doing my job... my resolution is based only on the evidence before me, nothing else," he said.

It was not clear when Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan would be released from jail.

They, and the other Ampatuan members, were also charged with rebellion for allegedly trying to resist government efforts to bring the killers to justice.

A court last month dismissed those rebellion charges. But Agra said the government was seeking a motion of reconsideration with the same court.

Vista Land profit cut by a tenth

MANILA, Philippines - Profits of Vista Land and Lifescapes, Inc., the listed property holding firm led by presidential candidate Senator Manuel B. Villar, Jr., dropped by more than a tenth to P2.6 billion last year amid an economic slowdown.

An executive said on Friday there should be a recovery in the industry this year. "2009, as expected, was a tough year, but in spite of a very challenging market environment, we were able to achieve our financial targets," Ricardo B. Tan, Jr., senior vice-president for Finance of Vista Land, said in a statement.

Mr. Tan said the latest profit figure was above the target of P2.1 billion to P2.5 billion. "We saw a pick up in the fourth quarter. We managed to keep our expenses under control," Mr. Tan said in a briefing on Friday.

Revenues fell by 8% to P9.6 billion from P10.436 billion year-on-year, Vista Land told the local bourse.

Vista Land operates under five brands -- Brittany that sells house-and-lot units for as much as P9 million, Crown Asia for homes worth P3.5 million to P9 million, Camella Homes for P3.5 million and below, Communities Philippines that sells Camella Homes in the provinces, and condominium arm Vista Residences.

Mr. Tan said Vista Land ended 2009 with a P3.146 billion in cash, lower than the P5.045 billion at the end of 2008.

For this year, Mr. Tan said revenues should rise to "P10.8 billion to maybe P11 billion."

"Bottom line will still be under P3 billion," he added.

Vista Land will launch 30 projects this year, of which 22 will be under the low-end Camella brand. The projects are valued at P30.2 billion. The P10-billion capital expenditure budgeted this year will generally be funded internally, with P1 billion to be obtained from local banks, Mr. Tan said.

Last year, the property developer allotted P8 billion in capital for 23 projects launched.

Sales were brisk in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, he said, without citing figures. "The property sector is on an upswing. Confidence is growing and we see what the competition is doing," Mr. Tan said.

Last month, property giant Ayala Land, Inc. launched its economic housing arm Amaia Land, which will put up 1,300 units in Laguna this year.

Despite increased competition in the low-end property market, Mr. Tan said the firm would continue its expansion. Vista Land is present in 44 cities and municipalities covering 19 provinces nationwide. The 33-year-old Camella brand specializes in affordable housing and accounts for bulk of the firm’s sales.

To date, the Vista Land group has built the largest number of homes among all local developers, with a total of more than 200,000 units.

The real estate firm still has 1,408 hectares in its "land bank," 78% of which are located in Metro Manila and neighboring provinces, data from the company showed.

Noynoy appears on Time Magazine

MANILA, Philippines – Presidential frontrunner Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is on the cover of TIME Magazine’s April 26 issue titled, “The New Aquino: Can Noynoy Save The Philippines?”

The article written by Ishaan Tharoor described Aquino in his campaign sortie in Zamboanga as an “unlikely man of the moment,” emerging on stage looking more like an “abashed computer nerd than the sort of brash, swaggering politician that has become the stock-in-trade in the Philippines”.

The Liberal Party standard-bearer comes from a family whose parents had fought to restore democracy in the Philippines.

“His charismatic father, Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr., was the country's greatest champion of democracy before being gunned down in 1983, presumably by agents of the ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Then his mother, Corazon (Cory) Aquino, a once meek housewife, became the figurehead of a popular rebellion in 1986 that toppled Marcos and gifted to the global lexicon the now immortal phrase of democratic revolution - people power,” the article said.

The article said he was encouraged to join the race for the country’s highest political office following the “massive outpouring of public grief and affection that followed his mother’s death from cancer last August.”

He said to Time, “They made automatic in me the preference to take up the cudgels for those who have less in life, for the powerless".

Philippine economics professor Winnie Monsod was quoted in the article as stating that Aquino "doesn't have his father's charisma, but he has his mother's sincerity. Whether that's enough, I don't know."

Noynoy’s campaign

TIME said Aquino’s campaign “has styled itself as the panacea for an afflicted country,” because his supporters believe he is the “righteous change candidate, destined to overhaul a stagnant status quo and redeem democracy.”

According to TIME, Aquino’s primary goal in his campaign is to curb corruption and “empower the people by delivering them ‘freedom from hunger.’” TIME added that 9 other rival bets have spoken out against corruption—“a problem that is hardwired into the country’s politics”.

TIME quoted political analyst Ramon Casiple as saying, "There are ties of clan, family and region that are stronger than the nation".

The article said “Aquino is not the only candidate promising social renewal, but he seems well suited for the part - carrying himself with an air of almost Gandhian simplicity and uprightness”.

His chief rival, Nacionalista Party's Sen. Manuel “Manny” Villar Jr. is described to be a “suave, smiling, businessman with a rags-to-riches story, rising from a Manila slum to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country”.

Populism vs legacy?

It noted “observers say the presidential race has become a contest between Villar's populism (and deep pockets) and the Aquino family legacy.”

The article added: “But there are doubts about how savvy an operator he will be when thrown deep into the murky world of Philippine politics - one, by his own admission, that he has considered forsaking in the past "so not to be compromised anymore."

Casiple added in the article that Aquino “may not be the ultimate architect of change, but he could push open the door for real reform.”

Newsbreak editor, Marites Vitug commented in the story, "Our trust in politics has been so eroded that people just want a new leader who will do the very basic - who will not be corrupt, who will be good."