MANILA – A Filipino court found the leaders of a powerful local dynasty guilty of one of the country's worst political massacres, involving dozens of members of one, on Thursday Rivals were involved The politicians' convoy was ambushed and gunned down over 10 years ago.
Three brothers – Zaldy Ampatuan, Sajid Ampatuan and Andal Ampatuan Jr. – were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 57 people on Nov. 23, 2009, in the southern province of Maguindanao. Most of the victims were journalists and media professionals, while others were supporters and family members of Esmael Mangudadatu, a candidate for governor, on the way to submitting papers for his candidacy.
"You shot my wife 17 times," said Mangudadatu, now a member of the Philippine Congress, recently to journalists in Manila, suppressing the tears. "They shot her on her breasts, her private parts. Such unimaginable cruelty. “
Reporters Without Borders called it the greatest massacre of journalists in history. Even for the Philippines, where political killings are common, the scale of the killings was shocking.
The volatile Maguindanao area in the south of the Philippines was long controlled by the Ampatuan clan, whose investigators carried out the attack because Mr. Mangudadatu's candidacy posed a direct challenge to their power.
The clan, led by the Ampatuan brothers' father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., who died in 2015, had built up his political power by joining the government of Ampatuan and his large private army as a militia against Muslim separatists and militants on the island Mindanao, to which Maguindanao belongs.
Before the massacre, violence was threatened. But Mr. Mangudadatu and his followers were confident that the large number of journalists and media professionals in their convoy – a total of 32 – would give the rival clan a break, witnesses said during the trial.
A militia instead. The unit, led by Andal Ampatuan Jr., the patriarch's favorite son, seized the group and at gunpoint forced them onto a hill where they were shot and hacked to death. Witnesses were scheduled in advance, witnesses told the court, and armed men, supported by corrupt local police officers on their payroll, tried to bury the remains with a state-owned excavator.
But not all suspects of the massacre were brought to justice. Eighty others remain at large and it is believed that they are hiding in the south and are likely still working for the clan, officials say. The national police state that they believe that those who are not in detention cannot be found and claims that they may have been hiding in areas controlled by armed Muslim militants.
Earlier this month, a man who testified for the indictment, Basit Taguigaya, was ambushed.
"He was to accompany me to Manila to announce the case of the Maguindanao massacre," Mangudadatu told reporters recently. “No one has been arrested yet. Are the lives of those who testified in danger? "
Three other witnesses who testified against the Ampatuan clan were also killed when the case found its way through the notoriously slow Filipino criminal justice system. Andal Ampatuan Sr., one of the defendants, died in prison for natural reasons.
International interest in the case has waned, but Filipino reporters have put a spotlight on it because so many of their colleagues died in massacre while in custody.
The delays resulted in the country's Supreme Court appointing a special court to deal exclusively with the case and speed up the testimony to speed up the process.
The New York Human Rights Watch this week called on the authorities to gather the suspects still at large and to argue that the families of the victims and witnesses are at risk of being attacked.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Right Group The verdict "should lead the country's political leaders to act at last to end state support for" private armies "and militias that promote political warlordism, the the Ampatuans produced ".
Nena Santos, a lawyer who represented Mr. Mangudadatu, said that she had received more than a hundred threats to her life in the past ten years. Most of the threats came from text messages, although she said she was personally threatened as well.
"Name it, I got it," she said, alluding to the threats. "In one case, I received a text message at 4:30 a.m. telling me that the person who was going to kill you was already at your home."