x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Andal Ampatuan makes first court appearance on massacre charges

Philippines clan chief pleads not guilty to involvement in murder of 57 people in Maguindanao.

Filipino relatives of victims of the Maguindanao massacre listen before the start of the hearing at a maximum security prison in Taguig, south of Manila, yesterday. Francis R Malasig / EPA
Filipino relatives of victims of the Maguindanao massacre listen before the start of the hearing at a maximum security prison in Taguig, south of Manila, yesterday. Francis R Malasig / EPA

MANILA // The head of a powerful Philippine clan pleaded not guilty yesterday to murdering 57 enemies and journalists.

In his first court appearance on charges of masterminding the country's worst political massacre, the 70-year-old Andal Ampatuan Snr faced more than two dozen relatives of the victims in the heavily guarded courtroom.

He nodded when asked if he understood the charges read out to him, as the judge, Jocelyn Reyes, ordered the trial to proceed after denying Mr Ampatuan's last-minute appeal to delay proceedings.

"Not guilty", Mr Ampatuan muttered to jeers from emotional family members of the victims who had packed the small room.

The Muslim clan patriarch, his son and namesake Andal Ampatuan Jnr and four relatives are among more than 80 people arrested and charged with murder over the November 2009 massacre of 57 people, 32 of whom were journalists.

After the trial got under way, police announced that two more suspects, an ex-policeman and an armed Ampatuan follower, had been arrested in the southern province of Maguindanao, where the killings took place.

More than a hundred other suspects, including Ampatuan relatives and members of a government-armed militia that worked under the family's direct command, remain at large.

The court has yet to read the charges against 21 of those in custody, and legal experts had earlier warned that the trial would stretch for years in the notoriously slow Philippine justice system.

The victims and some of their vehicles were found buried in mass graves in a deserted farm on a hillock, near an excavator, which bore the Ampatuan patriarch's name.

A witness earlier said that the Ampatuans had planned the killings six days beforehand, with the patriarch telling the group to make sure the murders were carried out carefully. The Ampatuans, who had ruled Maguindanao for a decade, are alleged to have ordered the murders to stop a rival from challenging Mr Ampatuan Jnr for the post of Maguindanao governor in last year's elections.

On Wednesday, relatives of the victims crowded into the courthouse, built in a suburban Manila jail compound specifically for the trial,- and cried and shouted as Mr Ampatuan Snr was ushered into the courtroom in handcuffs.

Juliet Evardo, 50, mother of one of the murdered journalists, cried during a break in the hearing as she recounted how she felt when she saw Mr Ampatuan Snr.

"How can he plead not guilty when the backhoe [excavator] bore his name?" Ms Evardo said.

Ms Evardo's 24-year-old son, Julito, was a television editor who defied her appeals not to join supporters and relatives of a rival candidate on their ill-fated convoy to submit candidacy papers to the local election watchdog.

Esmael Mangudadatu, the rival Maguindanao politician who was elected governor after the massacre, expressed satisfaction that his wife, sister and other relatives, who were among the victims, would finally get justice.

The Ampatuans had ruled Maguindanao under the patronage of former president Gloria Arroyo, who rights monitors said had allowed the clan to keep a large private army as a proxy force against Muslim rebels.

Mr Mangudadatu, meanwhile, said members of the Ampatuan private army were among the suspects still at large. They were continuing to harass witnesses, he said, including one man who was shot and a woman they allegedly raped.

Mr Mangudadatu said these witnesses "are now out of danger and will continue to testify" and added that "this illustrates the lingering power of the clan".