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(New York) - The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation should immediately investigate the latest killing of a witness to the November 2009 massacre of at least 58 people in Maguindanao province, Mindanao, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the government to act swiftly to protect witnesses and their families.

An unidentified gunman shot and killed Suwaib Upham, a witness to the Maguindanao killings known publicly as "Jesse," shortly after 8 p.m. June 14, 2010, in Parang municipality, Maguindanao. He had agreed to testify against members of the powerful Ampatuan family, who were accused in the killings, if afforded witness protection. Three months before he was killed, Human Rights Watch had raised protection issues regarding Upham with Justice Department officials in Manila, yet the department was still considering his request for protection at the time of his killing.

"Massacre witnesses are dying while the government sits on its hands," said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "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."

Upham had been a militia member for the Ampatuans, Maguindanao's most powerful ruling family. Upham came out of hiding in February and offered to testify about the massacre through one of the private prosecutors in the Ampatuan trial. In exchange for his testimony, he sought protection.

At the time of the 2009 massacre, the Ampatuans 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.

Upham was a key witness to the massacre in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao, Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, on November 23, 2009. On that day, dozens of gunmen, including Upham, stopped a convoy that was en route to file Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu's candidacy for the May 2010 Maguindanao gubernatorial elections. The gunmen summarily executed at least 57 people, including Mangudadatu family members and supporters, bystanders, and more than 30 members of the media and their support staff.

Those charged with the killings include members of the Ampatuan family, together with police, military, and paramilitary personnel. Andal Ampatuan, Jr., then mayor of the town of Datu Unsay, and the son of former Maguindanao governor, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., is the lead suspect in the case. He was charged with multiple counts of murder on December 1, 2009, and is in custody while his bail hearing continues.

In a meeting on April 22 in Manila, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch called upon the Philippines justice secretary, Alberto Agra, to take action to protect Upham. Human Rights Watch had expressed fears for Upham's safety in March, after Upham informed Human Rights Watch that there was a bounty on his head.

As a member of the Ampatuan militia, Upham had witnessed and participated in several killings and other human rights abuses, which may have excluded him from the Justice Department's witness protection program. However, knowing that witnesses to the Maguindanao massacre had previously been killed, that Upham had received direct threats on his life, and that he had publicly spoken out against the Ampatuans, Philippine authorities should have taken all necessary measures to protect him, Human Rights Watch said.

"The rampant impunity for serious abuses in the Philippines is not going to end so long as the authorities don't protect the hired guns who are willing to talk," Pearson said. "By failing to act to protect Upham so that he could testify, the government has raised strong doubts about its interest in holding accountable those behind the Maguindanao massacre."

President-elect Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, who takes office next week, should live up to his promise of justice for the massacre victims by taking urgent measures to protect witnesses, Human Rights Watch said. On May 31, Aquino reportedly told European Union ambassadors that he would obtain justice for the victims, saying he will not tolerate "one entity or a group or a family [that] thinks they are above the law."

The United Nations special envoy on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, recommended in 2007 that the government ensure protection for persons who testify in killings for as long as they are at risk, and that they be provided housing and other assistance to ensure their security and well-being. Human Rights Watch made similar recommendations in its 2007 and 2009 reports about extrajudicial killings. None of these recommendations have been implemented. The Philippine government has frequently defended the small number of prosecutions of extrajudicial killings by stating that witnesses do not come forward to testify.

Human Rights Watch called on the Aquino administration to provide sufficient funding to ensure adequate protection for witnesses and their families, and urged the government to promptly  investigate acts of witness intimidation and killing and to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Security forces and the Justice Department should take the measures needed to protect witnesses' physical safety, including relocation where necessary, and to ensure that witnesses and their families are afforded appropriate housing. Witnesses who are themselves implicated in the killings and other crimes should be appropriately - and safely - detained prior to trial.

"We don't want to hear the government say a few months down the road that it is dropping charges because there is no eyewitness testimony," Pearson said. "Aquino should make witness protection a priority to fulfill his promise of justice for the massacre victims."

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