Philippines massacre case drags on

2010-11-15 13:41

Manila - A Muslim clan accused of the Philippines' worst political massacre is intimidating and attempting to bribe witnesses while dragging out court proceedings, rights groups and victims' relatives say.

Almost 12 months since the Ampatuan family allegedly orchestrated the murders of 57 people to stamp out a political rival's electoral challenge, family members of those killed fear the trial could drag on for years.

"In my heart I want to forgive, but we need to have justice served. They have to pay for what they did to us," said Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon, one of four crew members from local broadcaster UNTV who were killed.

"When will the trial be over? God only knows, but we cannot afford to wait forever."

Andal Ampatuan Jnr allegedly led over a hundred of the clan's private army in stopping a convoy carrying relatives of a political rival in their southern stronghold of Maguindanao province, before shooting and hastily burying them.

The Ampatuan clan had ruled Maguindanao for over a decade with the patronage of former president Gloria Arroyo, who used the family's private army of about 5 000 men to contain Muslim insurgents and solidify her own power.

32 journalists killed

Arroyo is alleged to have ignored the clan's excesses, including alleged mass killings of rivals and massive corruption that turned Maguindanao into one of the country's poorest provinces.

Among those slain on November 23 last year were 32 journalists travelling with the rival politician's relatives, in what media watchdogs said was the deadliest single-day attack anywhere in the world on members of the press.

Ampatuan Jnr and five other clan members are among 196 people charged over the murders.

However, only 81 of those charged are in custody and just 17 have so far gone on trial - although one of them is key suspect Ampatuan Jnr.

More than 100 Ampatuan militiamen accused of involvement in the massacre have continued to elude a manhunt, and still pose a security threat in Maguindanao.

Tiamzon, a 49-year-old mother of three, has been attending the once-a-week court proceedings in Manila despite fears she may be targeted by Ampatuan henchmen.


But with only five of the hundreds of witnesses testifying for the prosecution since the trial began in September, Tiamzon said she feared that intense media focus would eventually wane, and with it, public vigilance.

"I am doing this for our children. I am hoping that I will live to see the verdict," she said.

In the Philippines, court cases regularly drag on for years and ordinary people complain it is too easy for the powerful to have charges against them dismissed by bribing court officials or witnesses.

In the Ampatuan case, prosecutors have complained of delaying tactics from the wealthy clan's battery of high-profile lawyers, as well as alleged attempts to silence witnesses and relatives with bribes or threats of violence.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last week its investigations revealed that victims' families and witnesses had been approached with cash offers to keep quiet.

Nancy Dela Cruz, mother of one of the victims, said three men claiming to represent the Ampatuans approached her early this year with a $68 000 bribe, according to the CPJ.

"We didn't take it. We want justice, not money," Dela Cruz told the CPJ.

Speedy resolution needed

Human Rights Watch also said in a report last month that five ex-employees of the Ampatuans who had knowledge of the planning and execution of the crime had been killed.

Among them was Suwaib Upham, a member of the clan's militia force who claimed to have taken part in the actual shooting, and who had wanted to turn state witness.

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the fact that the trial had started was a welcome development but urged a speedy resolution of the case.

"Justice should be swift. At a minimum the court should hold more than one hearing each week. More importantly, the trial must be conducted vigorously so that all evidence is brought out," Pearson said.

But Ampatuan's lead defence lawyer, Philip Sigfrid Fortun, said the intense interest in the case may harm his clients' chances of a fair trial and cause it to drag on for longer than necessary.

"If the trial is not properly managed, I doubt whether this will be over in 10 years," Fortun said, while repeating Ampatuan Jnr had never wavered in his insistence that he was innocent.