MANILA // Prosecutors in the Philippines have charged 197 people, including two former governors and allies of the president, with murder following the mass killing of 57 people last year in the southern province of Maguindanao. Papers filed in a Manila court yesterday accused Andal Ampatuan Sr, the head of one of the most powerful clans in the south and a former governor of Maguindanao, with conspiring kill members of the rival Mangudadatu family.
Also charged was his son Zaldy Ampatuan, who until the killings was governor of the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao, which includes Maguindanao province. The government had already charged the two with rebellion after briefly imposing martial law shortly after the massacre to stop clan members from resisting arrest and fighting back after the killings on November 23. More than 100 armed militiamen took part in the massacre on a lonely, windswept hill near the provincial capital. Among the dead were 31 journalists who were going to cover the filing of candidacy papers of Esmael Mangudadatu, who is running for governor of the province, in the May 10 elections.
The victims were systematically shot, hacked with machetes and in some cases cut up with chainsaws before being buried in prepared shallow pits or dumped in grasslands just near the national motorway outside the capital. Mr Mangudadatu had sent his wife and other female relatives and supporters to the provincial capital after he had received a series of death threats from the Ampatuans. Mr Mangudadatu mistakenly believed fellow Muslims would not harm the convoy because it was led by women.
Prosecutors said of the 197 people named in the indictment only 11 are in custody and the rest are being hunted down nearly three months after the killings. Among those indicted included 62 policemen and four soldiers. Before yesterday's charges, only one of the patriarch's sons, his namesake, Andal Ampatuan Jr, had been formally charged. He is standing trial in a specially designed courtroom inside the national police headquarters in Manila. He has denied any involvement in the massacre and is applying for bail.
Mr Ampatuan Sr had been the governor of Maguindanao for most of the past decade, and was a close ally of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He was instrumental in delivering decisive votes in the 2004 elections that guaranteed her victory over her rival, Fernando Poe. Most political clans in the Philippines have private armies, but few matched the political clout and firepower of the Ampatuans, who employed more than 2,400 gunmen. After the massacre, security forces recovered an arsenal of high-powered assault rifles, rocket launchers, artillery pieces, nearly a million rounds of ammunition and a fleet of 23 cars reported to be worth nearly US$1 million (Dh3.67m), including two armour-plated Humvees.
The prosecutors' case, as outlined in a 78-page report released to the media, made it clear they believed the Ampatuan family had planned the massacre well in advance. "From the witnesses presented by complainants, it can be deduced that the commission of the crime was planned deliberately by the perpetrators and that, until its consummation, there was an inexorable resolve to kill," they said. "There was also a considerable period of time that gave said assailants the opportunity to reflect and meditate on their intended acts.
"However, despite such period of time during which they could have withdrawn from their sinister plot, they still decided to consummate the crime." The report also said there was "viable evidence" the local police and the military "dipped their fingers in the preparation and subsequent consummation of the despicable killings of the victims". The indictments were made public on the day campaigning for the national elections began.
Even though the Ampatuan patriarch and many of his heirs have been stripped of their powers, clan members still lead the list of 879 candidates running for 374 posts in the province, which include two congressional seats. According to the elections commission, the Ampatuans lead the list with 50 local candidates. email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse