x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Philippines president declares martial law

The country's president imposes martial law on a southern province and security forces detain the patriarch of a powerful clan and three of his sons.

GENERAL SANTOS, PHILIPPINES // The president of the Philippines imposed martial law today on a southern province and security forces detained the patriarch of a powerful clan and three of his sons, accusing them of massacring 57 people and fomenting a rebellion. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was accused of overreacting after invoking emergency powers in response to the country's worst incident of political violence. It was the first time martial law has been declared in the country since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed it more than three decades ago.

The head of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr - a former governor - and at least six other family members who have ruled impoverished Maguindanao province unopposed for years, are the main suspects in the November 23 attack on a rival's convoy. Some 30 journalists were among the dead. The family has denied involvement. The Ampatuans, notorious for running a large private army, have previously been allied with Mrs Arroyo, who received crucial votes from the volatile southern region during 2004 elections.

Mrs Arroyo's ruling party expelled the clan after the massacre. The martial law proclamation allows troops to make arrests without court warrants and to restore order, Mrs Arroyo's top cabinet member, executive secretary Eduardo Ermita, announced on national television early today. The last Philippines leader to declare martial law was Marcos, whose nationwide declaration in 1972 paved the way for his one-man rule that ended with his ouster in 1986. Under the post-Marcos constitution, Mrs Arroyo can enforce martial law for 60 days, unless Congress revokes or extends it.

Former president Fidel Ramos, who was a supporter of Mrs Arroyo but has recently been critical of her actions, described her move as "overkill". In today's announcement, Mr Ermita cited military reports as saying heavily armed supporters of the Ampatuans had "plans to undertake hostile action" if clan members were arrested. "We felt that this is a very imminent threat, so we recommended this proclamation," the military chief of staff, Gen Victor Ibrado, said. "By their sheer number, they are really a threat to the peace and order of the province."

The justice secretary Agnes Devanadera said the arrested men would be charged with rebellion, which carries a penalty of up to 40 years in prison. "We evaluated very closely the facts and circumstances and information that were reported to us and there is no mistake in the analysis - it was a looming, and in fact it was already, practically an overthrow of government," she said. But CenterLaw, a group of human rights lawyers, said there were insufficient grounds for martial law and would challenge it in the Supreme Court.

"The Constitution limits the grounds to insurrection, rebellion and invasion. None of these grounds are existent," it said in a statement. "We call on the citizenry to be vigilant for the defence of their civil liberties." * AP