Manila: The masterminds of the Philippines’ worst political massacre have been found guilty of murdering 57 people, a rare conviction of powerful personalities in a country notorious for its culture of impunity.
Officials said the gunmen slaughtered 58 people a decade ago and dumped their bodies in pits as part of a mass killing, though only 57 bodies were recovered.
Leaders of the Ampatuan family, a powerful political dynasty, had been accused of orchestrating the killings in a bid to quash an election challenge from a rival clan.
Some 32 journalists were among those murdered on Nov 23,2009, making the massacre also one of the worst ever of media workers.
Yesterday, a Manila court found 43 people guilty as principals or accessories to 57 murders led by Andal Ampatuan Jr, who had been planning to run for provincial governor against the rival.
As principal suspects, Ampatuan and 27 others – including seven of his relatives – were each sentenced to 30 years in jail without parole, the court ruling read.
Fourteen members of the local police and a member of the Ampatuan family’s armed militia force were sentenced to between eight and 10 years in prison as accessories.
Two clan leaders and more than 50 others – mostly police officers and alleged members of the Ampatuan militia – were acquitted either on “reasonable doubt” or the prosecution’s failure to prove their guilt.
The judge also dismissed the charges over the 58th victim, whose body was not found save for his dentures.
“This makes us sad and happy at the same time because some of the major suspects were convicted, ” Esmael Mangudadatu, the Ampatuans’ rival, told reporters outside the courtroom.
The massacre unfolded when Mangudadatu – now a member of the House of Representatives – sent his wife and two sisters to file his candidacy for governor of Maguindanao province in an open challenge to the Ampatuans.
Gunmen blocked the convoy, which included the journalists, and herded them to a nearby hill, where they were killed in a hail of gunfire and buried in mass graves along with their vehicles, prosecutors said.
Six of the victims were unrelated motorists who had the misfortune of driving into the checkpoint at the time.
The murders cast a spotlight on the Philippines’ notorious culture of impunity, in which powerful and wealthy politicians and businessmen often operate above the law.
The Ampatuans ruled the impoverished southern province and were allowed to build a heavily armed militia by then-president Gloria Arroyo to serve as a buffer against a long-running Muslim insurgency in the region. — AFP