Witness to Philippines political massacre is murdered

Justice department denied protection to gunman who came forward after shooting of 56 people in Manguindanao last November.

MANILA // A key witness in the worst political massacre in recent Philippine history has been murdered after the justice department refused to put him into a witness protection programme, a prosecution lawyer said yesterday. Suwaib Upham surfaced in March and claimed he had taken part in the massacre of 58 people, including 30 journalists, in the southern province of Maguindanao on November 23.

He was shot by a lone gunman near his home in Maguindanao on June 14. According to the lawyer Harry Roque, who is counsel for 14 of the murdered journalists' families, Upham was his star witness in the case. In an interview with Al Jazeera television not long after he made his claims, Upham outlined in graphic detail how senior members of the then powerful Ampatuan clan had plotted the massacre that was aimed at stopping a political opponent from running for governor of the impoverished province in the May 10 elections.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday: "Massacre witnesses are dying while the government sits on its hands." Elaine Pearson, the acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Suwaib Upham took enormous personal risks by agreeing to testify against Ampatuan family members, yet the government, knowing full well he was in danger, did nothing. This sends the worst possible message to other witnesses thinking of coming forward."

So far only one member of the Ampatuan clan, Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan Jr, has been put on trial. However, the trial was suspended in February because the prosecution wants to consolidate murder charges against more than 190 suspects into one trial and questioned the judge's capacity to handle the case. Upham, in his interview with Al Jazeera, admitted to having been one of seven gunmen who murdered the 58 victims of the massacre.

He identified the other gunmen as Andal Ampatuan Jr; the latter's cousins Kanor Ampatuan; Ban Ampatuan and Mama Ampatuan; the police officer Ando Masukat and a man he knew only as Kudja. He said the former governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan Sr, and Zaldy Ampatuan, the former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, ordered the killings. Upham said the first to be killed was the wife of Maguindanao's recently elected governor, Esmael "Toto" Mangundadatu.

"Unsay then ordered all seven gunmen to fire indiscriminately at all members of the ill-fated convoy, many of whom were still in their vehicles. He also recounted how witnesses pleaded for their lives," he said. Many of the victims were not only shot but hacked with machetes and run over by trucks before being buried in a series of quickly dug mass graves. According to Mr Roque, the prosecution "has now lost" its best witness. He said Upham returned to Maguindanao in April after the justice department would not give him protection.

Upham told Al Jazeera: "After the killings, Unsay bade farewell to his men before surrendering to authorities. He said nothing will happen to him and that their [Ampatuan's] money can buy all of them [the government]." Despite outrage both locally and internationally over the killings, very little has been done to bring those who ordered and executed the massacre to justice. The Ampatuans were a major political force in Muslim Mindanao and were close to the outgoing president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In the 2004 national elections the clan was responsible for securing a million votes for Mrs Arroyo.

The clan, in power for more than a decade, was known for its brutal, feudal style of government, at the same time amassing vast wealth while local people remained mired in poverty. The clan commanded a state-backed militia of thousands of men, which included paramilitary force members, police and military personnel. Upham knew the inner workings of the Ampatuans' state-backed militia, their sources of weapons and the command structure of the police, military, and paramilitary forces in Maguindanao. He also knew details of past abuses perpetrated by the Ampatuans and their private army, Human Rights Watch said in its statement.

Since the massacre at least six witnesses have been murdered and scores have been silenced through intimidation or simply bought off. foreign.desk@thenational.ae