A guilty verdict was handed down by the court to the mastermind and his associates for the mass killing of 57 people in Maguindanao, southern Philippines, in what is considered the most gruesome political killing in the country.
After almost 10 years of trying the case, the regional trial court of Quezon City has found Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., a former town mayor, guilty along with several other suspects.
Also found guilty are his brothers, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Datu Zaldy “Puti” U. Ampatuan and Datu Anwar Ampatuan Sr., and nephews Datu Anwar Sajid “Datu Ulo” Ampatuan and Datu Anwar “DatuIpi” Ampatuan Jr.
The rest of the convicts were members of the family’s private army, police officials and militiamen.
The guilty were all meted with the penalty of reclusion perpetua or up to 40 years imprisonment without the benefit of parole.
Applause followed the reading of the verdict in a packed and heavily secured courtroom, where some relatives of the victims and their lawyers were present.
The case involves more than 100 detained suspects that dragged on for 10 years, in a high-profile test of the Southeast Asian nation’s notoriously clogged and vulnerable judicial system. About 80 suspects remain at large.
While the mass killing has largely unravelled as an offshoot of a violent electoral rivalry common in many rural areas, it has also showcased the threats faced by journalists in the Philippines. Thirty-two of those gunned down were local reporters and media workers in the worst single attack on journalists in the world.
Ampatuan Jr. allegedly led nearly 200 armed followers who blocked a seven-vehicle convoy carrying the wife, sisters and other relatives and lawyers of Esmael Mangudadatu, a politician who decided to run for governor of Maguindanao province.
Mangudadato challenged the powerful Ampatuan clan, who held sway over almost every aspect of life in the impoverished region wrecked by a Muslim insurgency, witnesses testified.
The journalists joined the convoy on Nov. 23, 2009, to cover the filing of candidacy of Mangudadatu in an election office in Maguindanao’s capital, Sultan Kudarat. Mangudadatu, now a legislator in the House of Representatives, was not in the convoy for security reasons.
The gunmen commandeered the convoy, including unsuspecting passengers of two cars that just happened to get stuck in the traffic caused by Ampatuan’s group, to a nearby hilltop, where a waiting backhoe had dug huge pits to be used in burying the victims and their vehicles.
Ampatuan Jr. and the other suspects allegedly opened fire on the victims at close range and hurriedly escaped after sensing that army troops were approaching. The badly mutilated bodies were found inside the vans, sprawled on the ground or buried in the pits with some of the vehicles; a gruesome scene that drew international outrage and shocked many even in a country long used to political violence.
Ampatuan Jr. along with his father and other siblings and relatives were placed under arrest after negotiations with officials of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Ampatuan Jr.’s father died in detention in 2015. The family patriarch allegedly approved the plot over family dinner, according to the testimony of one witness.
The Ampatuans have denied the allegations and are expected to appeal the verdict. There is no death penalty in the Philippines.
The Ampatuan clan, backed by government firepower and armed militias, had helped quell Muslim guerrillas in the region.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to bolster efforts to apprehend the 80 suspects who remain at large, warning that they pose a threat to witnesses, including families of the victims. (Source: INQUIRER.net)