Plot to free Philippine massacre suspect

At least three groups loyal to a former Philippine state governor's son on trial for the mass murder of 56 people are behind a plot to try to free him.

Andal Ampatuan Jr  is handcuffed by an agent before the latest hearing in his murder trial in Manila.
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MANILA // At least three groups loyal to a former Philippine state governor's son on trial for the mass murder of 56 people are behind a plot to try to free him from the National Bureau of Investigation building where he has been detained since his arrest late last year. The plot, which was confirmed by an NBI spokesman, Ricardo Diaz, last week, is the latest in a series of threats and intimidation of witnesses in the country's biggest murder trial.

Last Wednesday, 15 new murder charges were filed against Andal Ampatuan Jr, who is standing trial for the November 23 Maguindanao massacre, the worst act of political violence in the country's hstory. A member of a politically powerful Muslim clan once allied to the administration of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Mr Ampatuan, a local city mayor from the southern province of Maguindanao and son of the provincial governor, has pleaded not guilty to the new charges.

With the 15 new cases filed against him, Mr Ampatuan is now facing 56 murder charges. He claims he is innocent in every case. State prosecutors said the late filing of cases last week was due to difficulties in finding investigators outside the influence of the defendant's powerful family in Maguindanao. Prosecutors have alleged that the defendant and up to 100 members of his private army stopped a convoy of journalists and relatives and supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of Buluan, on a highway in Maguindanao, kidnapped the victims at gunpoint, then took them to a hillside where they were shot dead beside ready-dug mass graves. The dead included Mr Mangudadatu's wife and his pregnant sister, as well as 30 journalists.

"This is something that everyone must monitor every step of the way," said Ramon Casiple, a political analyst with the Institute for Political and Economic Reform. "What we are facing here is a very strong clan with very strong political connections and the capability to intimidate or even kill witnesses. "This puts the justice system to a test because past cases with heavy political overtones have never been satisfactorily concluded. At the end of the day, it's still politics talking. And these warlords will not go down quietly."

One judge has already backed out of the case, saying he feared for his life. There have also been calls from prosecutors for the justice department to ensure the safety of witnesses. Mr Ampatuan's father and several other prominent clan members were arrested after martial law was imposed on December 5 in Manguindanao and charged separately with rebellion. The trial of Mr Ampatuan began on January 6 under intense security inside the national police headquarters in Manila. But since it began, family members of key witnesses have been murdered by supporters of the Ampatuans.

A cousin of Rasul Sangki, who was reported to have been with Mr Ampatuan at the time of the shooting, was shot dead just after Mr Sangki turned state witness to avoid prosecution. At the time police said vengeance was the motive because Mr Sangki was testifying against Mr Ampatuan. Shortly after the trial began militia members loyal to the Ampatuans torched a village where Mr Sangki lived. His home, however, was left untouched.

"It is a subtle but effective way to intimidate a witness," said a senior police commander who did not want to be named. Police Inspector Rex Ariel Diongon, another key state witness, has been placed under the witness protection programme of the department of justice because it is feared that he too may be murdered. Mr Diongon is among 66 policemen who were charged in the massacre. Since the charges were laid many of the police have turned state witness to escape prosecution and some have since disappeared.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer in a recent editorial said: "It is the events outside the courtroom that bode ill for the fair, impartial trial that the families of the victims expect and the country as a whole demands."