MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Andal Ampatuan Sr., a former Philippine governor and one of the main suspects accused of ordering the killings of 58 people in the Philippines' worst massacre, has died of a heart attack in a government hospital, his lawyer said Saturday.
Ampatuan, 74, was on trial for the 2009 massacre and was brought to the National Kidney and Transplant Institute in early June, when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He fell into a coma last week and died overnight of a heart attack due to liver failure, said lawyer Salvador Panelo.
The influential power player in the southern Philippines, who was also mentioned in connection with allegations of massive vote cheating in national elections, Ampatuan was among 103 people who were charged with multiple murder in the Maguindanao massacre, one of the worst political killings in the country.
He and his relatives were accused of killing 58 people, including the family of their political rival and 32 journalists, on Nov. 23, 2009. It was also the world's worst single killing of media workers.
At a roadblock, the gunmen stopped the cars carrying the wife and three sisters of Esmael Mangudadatu, the contender in elections for provincial governor, and local journalists who were accompanying them on their way to file candidacy papers. They brought them to a hill where some were ordered to line up and were mowed down at close range, according to authorities. Others were shot inside their vehicles and buried in huge holes that had been dug by a backhoe. Bullet-riddled bodies were also found scattered on the ground or in other vehicles.
Even for a nation where political killings are common and impunity runs deep, the brazenness of the massacre sent shockwaves and forced then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to call in the army to disarm the Ampatuans' private militias and order the clan, which ruled the impoverished but vote-rich province, to surrender.
Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his namesake son and the other accused have denied the charges against them. The slow pace of the trial has been criticized by the victims' families, and Arroyo's successor, President Benigno Aquino III, has repeatedly promised to deliver justice but without compromising the judicial process by rushing through the proceedings.
Arroyo has been detained on charges unrelated to the massacre, including electoral cheating.
Private prosecutor Harry Roque, who represents several of the victims' families, lamented that Ampatuan had died before the end of the trial.
"We decry the fact that the delay in the system has resulted in this — that both accused and the victims were deprived of a judicial declaration of whether or not he is guilty," Roque told The Associated Press. "It should never happen again that something as gruesome as this takes as long as it has taken" to resolve.
The human rights lawyer's group Centerlaw, which is headed by Roque, said that "the search for justice continues and we will persevere on behalf of our clients."
Panelo also expressed frustration that his client died before he could defend himself in court.
"As a lawyer, I regret that he has to die and deprive me of presenting him as my witness and depriving himself to testify on the side of the Ampatuans," he said.
Panelo said he had evidence to dispute claims by a key witness who had testified that he was at a family meeting called by Ampatuan, where the decision was made to carry out the massacre.