Slow trial frustrates Philippine massacre kin

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2011 6:06 AM
Slow trial frustrates Philippine massacre kin

Two years after a political massacre in the southern Philippines became the single worst slaying of journalists in the world, more than half of the nearly 200 suspects remain at large.

Leaders of a politically powerful clan and several of their lieutenants have been put on trial over the attack _ an ambush of a convoy and the slayings of at least 57 political opponents and media employees who accompanied them. But the proceedings have moved at a snail's pace, frustrating relatives of the victims.

"We know that it is not easy to get justice. We need to work for it, it is not voluntarily offered or easily obtained," said Grace Morales, widow of journalist Rosell Morales and sister of another reporter slain in the massacre, Marites Cablitas.

"The families need to act, to remain strong and to continue the fight," she said in an interview. "It has been two years but we have not yet obtained full justice."

The focus of the trial is Andal Ampatuan Sr., patriarch of the powerful clan in southern Maguindanao province, former governor of an autonomous Muslim region and a political ally of ex-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Victims' relatives blame Arroyo for a culture of impunity in the southern Philippines and have filed a lawsuit against her, claiming she could have prevented the killings, although she has condemned the massacre and denied any prior knowledge.

However, Arroyo was arrested just last week on charges of electoral fraud for allegedly instructing Ampatuan and an elections official to rig the results of 2007 congressional polls. She denies any wrongdoing.

Ampatuan is among 96 suspects in custody being tried on murder charges, including his sons, other relatives and former government-armed militiamen under his wing. They have pleaded not guilty.

Still at large are an additional 100 suspects, including former police, military personnel and civilian militia members linked to the Ampatuans, believed to be hiding in Maguindanao and elsewhere in the restive southern Philippines.

Gunmen allegedly led by Andal Ampatuan Jr., a former town mayor, stopped members of the Mangudadatu clan, the Ampatuans' political rivals, as they traveled to file for candidacy in regional elections. They were led to a hilltop clearing, gunned down and hastily buried in mass graves alongside their vehicles, which were crushed by a backhoe.

"This case underscores what happens when people have full control and absolute power and then abuse it," Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said during a ceremony Wednesday at the massacre site. "They were so brazen and thought nothing could stop them."

The dead included at least 31 media staffers covering the Mangudadatus, making it the worst-ever single massacre of journalists. The charge sheet lists 57 victims but the body of journalist Reynaldo Momay, who was also part of the convoy, was never found.

Still-mourning relatives led by Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, who lost his wife and sisters in the massacre, lit candles, offered flowers and released doves during the ceremony at the mound where concrete markers bearing the names of dead were erected.

Mangudadatu said earlier Wednesday he would scrap a visit to the site in Ampatuan township _ named after the powerful clan _ after authorities defused at least two bombs nearby. But he later changed his mind and decided to attend.

Robredo said he assured relatives of the victims that the government would do all it can to give them justice and punish all those responsible. But while the government has taken steps to hasten the prosecution, the trial has suffered delays because of numerous legal tactics by the suspects' lawyers in a judiciary notorious for a huge number of backlog cases.

"We guaranteed them that under this administration, there would no longer be such warlords because no government will support them," Robredo said. "As we were traveling back to the airport from the massacre site, I saw along the way that only the police and troops were bearing guns."

In Manila, hundreds of journalists and students marched near the presidential palace to demand a stop to killings of reporters and justice for victims of the massacre.

Protesters sprawled briefly on a busy street near the palace and the outlines of their bodies were traced with chalk to resemble a crime scene. Several relatives of victims joined the protesters as they lit candles placed on the chalk markings.

The trial opened last year in a specially built courtroom inside a Manila maximum-security prison, where the judge is hearing the case twice a week. A minute of silence was observed during the hearing Wednesday.

Even from behind bars, the Ampatuans still wield influence and instill fear.

Reynafe Momay-Castillo, the daughter of the undeclared 58th victim, said emissaries of the suspects were offering money to some relatives in exchange for dropping the case.

"I don't feel safe to work," said Momay-Castillo, a nurse. "We are fighting so many things, not just fighting for justice. We are confronted with the realities of life that go with what happened to our loved ones. The problem is our enemy has so much money."


Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.