Powerful Filipino clan says innocent in massacre

AP News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2009 12:01 PM

Kristia Subang wiped her father's coffin with a cloth and recalled the last time she saw the veteran newspaperman, when he woke her with a surprise gift of a new set of shoes for school _ the night before he and 29 colleagues were massacred on their final assignment.

Relatives of the journalists _ among 57 civilians who were shot and hacked to death in a Nov. 23 attack on an election convoy in the southern Philippines _ gathered for a wake Sunday at a rundown funeral parlor. The white wooden coffins were all shut except for one to hide their remains, disfigured in a slaughter that used guns, machetes and a backhoe.

The massacre highlighted the violent factionalism that plagues the volatile region _ and the deadly risks journalists take in covering it. The powerful clan accused in the killings vowed it was innocent and said Sunday it would wage a legal battle to disprove the allegations.

Media watchdogs say it was the world's deadliest single assault on journalists. The carnage drew worldwide condemnation, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but few media professionals here think the killings will stop.

Though the Philippines prides itself on having one of the freest presses in Southeast Asia, journalists say they face such dangers on a daily basis. Raging Muslim and communist rebellions, more than a million unlicensed guns, clan wars, rampant crime and weak law enforcement conspire to create one of the world's most hostile environments for journalists, according to newspaper publisher Ronald Mascardo.

In the autonomous region of southern Mindanao where he works, the risks are especially high. Journalists have been shot to death for exposing corruption and misdeeds, kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants or threatened by officials and outlaws.

"When I leave for work each day, there's only a 50-50 chance I can return alive," said the 37-year-old Mascardo, who lost a staffer to the killings, and attended Sunday's wake in General Santos city for 10 of the slain journalists. "It's like Russian roulette, using a six-shooter loaded with three bullets."

The massacre victims were in a convoy to cover a local politician's filing of his intention to run for governor in predominantly Muslim Maguindanao province when dozens of gunmen abducted and then butchered them en masse on a nearby hill and buried them in mass graves. The candidate's wife and sisters were also among the dead.

The main suspect _ Andal Ampatuan Jr., the son of a political warlord _ has been detained in Manila and faces multiple murder charges.

The Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists wrote Friday to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo saying that 75 journalists had been killed during her eight years in office _ even before the last week's massacre _ and only four convictions of the killers have been secured.

"The international media community are grieving and distraught at the failure of the government ... to uphold its responsibility to protect our colleagues and to end the long-running culture of impunity," the federation said in the letter.

Arroyo has condemned the killings as "a supreme act of inhumanity" and vowed justice for the victims. At least four ranking police officers have been suspended and confined to camp while being investigated.

Arroyo's ruling party has also expelled Ampatuan, along with his brother and father _ long considered untouchable because of their close ties with the president. The Ampatuans helped Arroyo win the presidency in 2004 by delivering votes in Maguindanao, which lies about 545 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.

The Ampatuans held a rare news conference Sunday to again deny any responsibility in the killings.

Zaldy Ampatuan, governor of a Muslim autonomous region that includes Maguindanao, said his family has hired a battery of lawyers to defend his brother. While he spoke at the clan's mansion in Maguindanao's capital of Shariff Aguak, hundreds of followers rallied outside, waving placards that read, "They are not killers."

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Ampatuan said he and his father, who have also been linked to the savage killings, were innocent.

He appealed to the public to respect the law and not prejudge his brother, adding he will resist a plan by Arroyo's interior secretary to suspend him and other officials of the vast region that he heads.

"We have been prejudged," Ampatuan told reporters in his family's mansion, where about 30 town mayors gathered to show support.

At the wake for the journalists in the nearby General Santos, talk among the relatives focused on their sudden loss that left their families with an uncertain future.

The ambush nearly wiped out the news staff of a regional tabloid, Periodico Ini, which lost five people. Another tabloid, Gold Star Daily, lost four.

Kristia Subang, 18, recounted how her father, Ian Subang, worked late hours and woke before dawn in his job as publisher of the weekly news tabloid Dadiangas Balita to earn money to put her through college. She said her father, who was fondly liked by peers for his many jokes, was shot at least seven times.

"On the last night I saw him, he woke me up and gave me a pair of shoes I needed for school," said Kristia.

"He's so kind he never scolded me because he knew I cry easily," she said. "That's the man they took so senselessly from us."