Manila // Philippine government prosecutors filed 25 murder charges yesterday against the son of a powerful southern warlord following last week's massacre in which 64 people were killed, including 30 journalists. The charges were filed in the southern city of Cotabato against Andal Ampatuan Jr, the suspect in the November 23 massacre in Maguindanao province.
At the same time, Agnes Devanadera, the country's justice secretary, told local television that she and a number of prosecutors in the case had received death threats. Mrs Devanadera said she had requested the Supreme Court to move the case to Manila from Cotabato City to protect witnesses. The city's mayor, Alfredo Lim, said he would fight such a move, however, citing security as his main concern.
The charges came one week after 100 heavily armed men massacred members of a convoy led by relatives of a local politician, Ismaeil Mangudadatu, as they made their way to the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak to file his papers for next year's elections in which he is running for governor of Maguindanao. The Mangudadatus are the known political rivals of the Ampatuan clan, who are allied with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, and have governed the province for a decade.
Some unsuspecting motorists who were caught up in the convoy were also killed. Most of the dead were buried on a grassy hillside just a few kilometres off the main road. One of the problems facing prosecutors will be securing solid evidence against Mr Ampatuan, whose family has hired a team of 20-plus lawyers. Most of the details coming out in the local media regarding the killings are based on a phone call from Mr Mangudadatu's wife, but as yet the mobile phone from which she made her last call has not been produced. Police said none of the victims had phones, which is unusual in a country where almost everyone has a mobile phone.
Mr Mangudadatu had earlier claimed that he had a recorder that was retrieved by investigators from the crime scene. He said he had intentionally asked his wife to conceal the device inside her sock so that anything that might happen to them during the trip could be caught on tape. But the tape has not surfaced as yet. Mrs Devanadera said her office has not yet received any piece of evidence connected to an audio tape.
A number of the people who are alleged to have taken part in the killings have turned state's evidence to escape prosecution. The chief inspector Sukarno Adil Dicay, the head of the Ampatuan police, and the inspector Ariel Diongon - both of whom have been suspended - said they were manning a checkpoint on the day of the killings. They told investigators that a group of about 100 armed men appeared and led the convoy away. Before leaving, men pointed guns at Mr Dicay and his subordinates and threatened to kill them if they intervened.
The main issue now is security for witnesses, securing a safe location for the trial and obtaining firm evidence. Mrs Devanadera said she had written about the case and expressed her concerns to the Supreme Court justice Reynato Puno. "We don't see the hearings happening there in Cotabato City because the witnesses are reluctant to go to court there, fearing for their and their families' lives," she said.