Witness in massacre trial killed, says prosecutor

2010-06-24 08:17

A key witness in the trial of a powerful Muslim clan accused of

orchestrating the worst political massacre in the Philippines has been shot

dead, a prosecutor said today.

The witness, Suwaib Upham, claimed to have taken part in the

November killings of 57 people in a crime allegedly planned by his former

employers, the Ampatuan clan.

Prosecutor Harry Roque said: “He was supposed to be one of our

strongest witnesses. He saw and participated in the killings and could have

directly named in court those involved.”

Roque warned that Upham’s killing, which he was told occurred last

week in the southern province of Maguindanao, could potentially weaken the case

against the Ampatuan family.

US-based Human Rights Watch also said the killing raised doubts

about the government’s resolve in seeing justice done in the case.

The group’s Asia director Elaine Pearson said: “Massacre witnesses

are dying while the government sits on its hands. This sends the worst possible

message to other witnesses thinking of coming forward.”

Roque said Upham had been talking to prosecutors in Manila since

February but went back to Maguindanao after the justice department did not act

quickly on his request for protection.

Roque said: “He went back to Maguindanao when it became apparent

the witness protection programme would take a while to take him in.”

His death comes two months after an uncle of another witness was

also shot and killed, in what authorities said was part of a plan to intimidate

those speaking out against the Ampatuan clan.

The clan, which has ruled Maguindanao with brutal efficiency for a

decade, enjoyed political ties with outgoing President Gloria Arroyo, who used

the family’s huge private army as a force against separatist rebels.

Six clan members are among 196 people charged over the murders,

allegedly carried out to prevent a member of a rival clan from running as

governor of the province.

The main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jnr, allegedly led about 100 armed

militia who stopped the convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu and then

summarily executed 57 people, including 30 journalists.

The closely watched trial has been mired in controversy, and has

been suspended since April.

Justice Secretary Alberto Agra in April controversially dropped

charges against two Ampatuan suspects but was forced to reverse his decision

after public outrage.

The justice department then courted more criticism when it allowed

the main suspect, Ampatuan Jnr, to hold a free-wheeling press conference inside

his prison cell without handcuffs.

Roque said the court has not yet given prosecutors a definite

timeline for the resumption of the trial “but justice needs to be served quickly

in this case”.

Roque said Upham’s relatives had informed him that the witness had

been killed by gunmen last week in Maguindanao.

It was not clear why police did not immediately report his killing

to prosecutors, and no officials were immediately available for comment.


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