Philippines promises protection to massacre witnesses
MANILA, July 13 – The Philippines’ new government said today it would protect witnesses to the massacre of 57 people last year, after one was shot dead last month, and ordered prosecutions of those attempting to buy their silence.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima met with prosecutors, police investigators and jail wardens to assess the case and the key suspects, members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, as well as plan the next steps, including ensuring the safety of witnesses.
The trial of the main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr, has been suspended since February. Since then, 57 murder charges have been brought against Ampatuan’s father, uncle and three brothers, as well as 191 others, but their trial has not started.
There is an expectation the case will be pursued urgently by the two-week-old government of President Benigno Aquino III.
“The Ampatuan case will define the commitment of the Aquino administration to pursue cases without delay, and determine whether or not they can actually protect witnesses,” said Marvic Leonen, dean of the College of Law at the University of the Philippines.
The Ampatuans are being held in detention in Manila. The clan had ruled southern Maguindanao province on Mindanao island for a decade and were strong supporters of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose term ended on June 30.
Last month, a key prosecution witness was shot dead, raising concerns about the safety of witnesses in the case.
US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr said the murder added to the need for a swift investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the massacre.
Harry Roque, lawyer for families of some of the 30 journalists killed in the November massacre, said the trial of the Ampatuans would be the biggest test of Aquino’s pledge to deal with lawlessness.
“We’re worried about the delays because we’re losing our witnesses. They are either bribed or killed,” he added.
Justice Secretary de Lima, who was the country’s human rights commissioner before taking office two weeks ago, has ordered prosecutors to charge two people for attempting to bribe two witnesses to retract their testimony against the Ampatuans.
“Since we have evidence, the statement of the person whom the bribe offer was relayed, I told them to file a case already to obviate further attempts of bribery of these witnesses,” de Lima told reporters.
She said witnesses, including police officers, may be moved for their own protection. “There are reports that they can be accessed, therefore, they get harassed, intimidated or there were attempts to entice them through foul means to recant their testimony,” de Lima added.
The 57 people were killed last November when about 100 armed men attacked their convoy on their way to witness the filing of nomination papers for a member of the Mangudadatu clan, rivals to the Ampatuans, to stand in local elections.
The candidate, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, lost his wife, two sisters and four other relatives in the massacre. He was elected as governor of the troubled Maguindanao province in the May 10 elections. – Reuters