MANILA, PHILIPPINES // The main suspect in the Philippines' worst political massacre was pushed by guards through an angry crowd today to appear at a preliminary investigation hearing. Dozens of Filipino journalists, whose 30 colleagues were among 57 people killed in southern Maguindanao province on November 23, jeered Andal Ampatuan Jr outside the Justice Department building in Manila and shoved pictures of the victims' mutilated bodies in his face.
He sat between two security officers at the hearing; one of them was armed with an assault rifle. Ampatuan, the only suspect indicted in the attack so far, has been charged with 40 counts of murder. He has denied involvement. State prosecutors called the hearing to receive additional complaints and evidence from investigators and victims' relatives against Ampatuan and 160 other people, including his father - clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr - as well as several brothers, police officers and government-armed militiamen who allegedly took part in the massacre.
The victims were travelling in a convoy led by the family and supporters of the Ampatuans' election rival when they were stopped, led to a grassy hilltop several kilometres away and killed. The massacre prompted president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to clamp down on the Ampatuans, her political allies who have ruled the impoverished province for years. They were expelled from the ruling party days after the killings.
Troops and police have recovered hundreds of firearms at or near Ampatuan properties, including mortars and heavy machine guns and enough ammunition for a battalion. Authorities have accused the Ampatuans of fomenting a rebellion in the province they control to avoid arrest. Senior state prosecutor Rosanne Balauag said her team would review the evidence to determine if other suspects should be indicted and then will try to build one multiple-murder case.
Sigfrid Fortun, a lawyer for the Ampatuans, waived his right to challenge the evidence against his clients. He said Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera had already prejudged them. Another hearing was set for December 28. During Friday's appearance, Ampatuan Jr appeared uneasy. He was wearing a military camouflage bulletproof vest and his handcuffs were linked to a chain attached to his vest that appeared to cause him discomfort. Esmael Mangudadatu, the candidate who planned to challenge the Ampatuans and whose wife, sisters and other relatives were among those killed, attended the hearing and later said he was "seething with anger" toward Ampatuan. He said the Ampatuans' refusal to submit counter-affidavits "clearly means they could not respond because the evidence against them is strong."