Philippine prosecutors criticise dropped charges

Philippine prosecutors publicly criticised a controversial government order to clear two men accused of orchestrating the November massacre of 57 people.

Philippine prosecutors today publicly criticised a controversial government order to clear two members of a powerful Muslim clan accused of orchestrating the country's worst political murders. The prosecutors said they believed cousins Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan should continue to stand trial for the November massacre of 57 people, including many journalists, that had caused international outrage. "We, being in the front line, still believe with due respect that there is probable cause to indict the two accused," the panel of prosecutors who built the case said in a statement.

"As professional career prosecutors, it pains us to publicly disagree with the resolution of the justice secretary." In a surprise move that provoked widespread condemnation and street protests, Justice Secretary Alberto Agra at the weekend ordered murder charges be dropped against the two, citing alibis they presented. Four other members of the powerful Ampatuan clan continue to face murder charges.

Critics, including the families of the victims, protest that the dropping of the charges could be part of a wider plot by outgoing President Gloria Arroyo to rig the May 10 national elections to favour her candidate. "This is a deliberate move to free a political kingpin in order to deliver the votes to Arroyo's anointed come May 2010," said senator Francis Pangilinan, campaign manager of the opposition Liberal Party.

"It is an abomination that ought to be condemned and vigorously opposed." The Liberal Party's presidential bet, Benigno Aquino, has been leading opinion surveys in the run up to the polls, while Ms Arroyo's chosen successor is a distant fourth. The Ampatuan clan was closely allied with Ms Arroyo until she was forced to publicly disown the family after the massacre. As the local overlords in vote-rich Maguindanao province, the clan intimidated and cheated to ensure her candidates won in the south during elections, according to her political rivals and rights groups.

Ms Arroyo's spokesman Gary Olivar yesterday rejected any allegations of impropriety over the dropping of the murder charges. "It is obscene to insinuate that the president would interfere in the legal proceedings of a heinous crime like the Maguindanao massacre as a mere political accommodation to anyone," Mr Olivar said in a statement. * AFP