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Massacre suspects 'trying to bribe families of victims'

Lawyers say the Ampatuan family is offering cash assistance and scholarships for families that agree to drop charges against its members.

People pray at the massacre site last month.
People pray at the massacre site last month.

MANILA // The family accused of the biggest mass murder in recent Philippine history has sent emissaries to the relatives of many of those killed offering a cash settlement and school scholarships if they drop the charges. At the same time witnesses are being intimidated and killed, lawyers working on the case said.

Last month prosecutors charged 196 people, including Andal Ampatuan Sr, the former governor of the impoverished southern province of Maguindanao, and 17 other family members with multiple counts of conspiracy to murder following the massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, in November. So far only one person, Andal Ampatuan Jr, is standing trial facing 57 counts of murder. His trial, however, has been suspended indefinitely while lawyers argue over procedure, collect additional documents and determine if the additional 196 people charged should stand trial with Mr Ampatuan Jr.

Harry Roque, one of the country's leading lawyers who is representing many of the families of victims, said: "It has been three months since the killings and the case against Mr Ampatuan Jr has not moved - and yes, it is a worry." One prosecution lawyer, Nena Santos, also claimed some prosecution witnesses "are being bought" to weaken the case against the Ampatuan clan. Mr Roque said he had heard about the approaches to families of those killed.

"I have had emissaries come to me wanting to set up meetings to establish what they called 'humanitarian assistance' for the families and scholarships for the children with no strings attached," he said. "These people have not told me who they represent and I have sent them away. Hard to believe someone is offering all this with no strings attached." According to Mrs Santos, some families of the journalists murdered have been approached by emissaries wanting a settlement.

"I believe there is a move by the Ampatuans to settle with some families of the victims," Mrs Santos said. The justice secretary Agnes Devanadera said recently she intended to set up a special fund for the families of the massacre victims to shield them from attempts to buy them off in exchange for dropping their complaint against the Ampatuans. Ms Devanadera said there have been offers from the private sector to set up a financial assistance package for the victims' families.

She said she has also received unverified information that some of the victims' families were being offered bribes to withdraw their complaint. Mr Ampatuan Sr was a close political ally of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. His clan has dominated political life in Maguindanao for more than 10 years. Prosecutors have said that he and his co-defendants were liable for the killings "regardless of the extent or degree of their participation".

The massacre on a windswept hill just outside the provincial capital took place as relatives and supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu were on their way to file nomination papers to challenge Mr Ampatuan's son, Andal Ampatuan Jr, in the election for governor. Last week a man, who gave his name as Jess, admitted that he took part in the massacre. Interviewed by Al Jazeera, he said the attack was not carried out on the orders of Mr Ampatuan Jr but on the orders of his father.

"I was there when they met a week prior and talked about the killings," he said. "Unsay [Ampatuan Jr] only does what he is told by Andal Sr - I followed orders too - I fired shots, I don't know how many I hit - if I hadn't - well, we know what Unsay is like." Now in hiding and using an assumed name, Jesse is awaiting a decision from Philippine authorities on his plea for witness protection in return for his testimony.

According to Jess, Mr Ampatuan Jr has already placed a US$45,000 bounty (Dh165,280) on his head. Meanwhile, only two of the 19 Ampatuans indicted in the massacre are not running for any positions in the May 10 elections - Mr Ampatuan Jr and his brother, the former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Zaldy Ampa-tuan. Mr Ampatuan Jr's wife, Reshal Santiago, is running for mayor of Datu Unsay and Mr Ampatuan Sr, the former governor of Maguindanao, is running for vice governor against three opponents, including his daughter, improving the odds that one of the family will be elected.

kwilson@thenational.ae