(New York) - The start of the trial of 19 defendants in the November 2009 massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines is a step for justice, but the government needs to arrest all those implicated and provide better protection for witnesses, Human Rights Watch said today. The killing of five people with knowledge of abuses by the Ampatuans, since the massacre, shows that the family still wields considerable power, Human Rights Watch said.
The murder trial is set to begin on September 8, 2010, before Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court in Taguig City, Metro Manila. The defendants include the lead suspect, Andal Ampatuan, Jr., then mayor of the town of Datu Unsay and the son of the former Maguindanao governor, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., 16 police officers, and two alleged members of a paramilitary force.
"The quest for justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre begins now," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But the dozens of suspects still at large and the threat to witnesses shows that there is a long road ahead."
The trial involves only 19 of 195 persons accused in the massacre. Altogether, 127 suspects remain at large, including 23 members and allies of the Ampatuan family, 10 police officers, and 4 soldiers. The remaining 49 accused that are in custody have yet to be arraigned.
The massacre took place on November 23, 2009, in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province, in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Gunmen killed members of a convoy that was en route to file the candidacy for provincial governor of Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudatu of the town of Buluan. Those killed included family members, supporters, and journalists, together with bystanders.
With fewer than half of the suspects in custody, witnesses, investigators, and others who might be deemed to be a threat to the Ampatuan family are at risk, Human Rights Watch said. At least five individuals with knowledge of Ampatuan activities have been killed since the Maguindanao massacre. Suwaib Upahm, who had worked for the Ampatuans for several years, told Human Rights Watch of three killings of drivers ordered by the Ampatuans following the massacre, including the driver of a police car that Andal Ampatuan, Jr. would often use. No charges have been filed in these cases.
Unidentified men shot and killed Upahm in Parang, Maguindanao on June 14, three months after he told private prosecutors representing journalists killed in the massacre that he would testify against the Ampatuans in exchange for protection. At the time of his death, the Justice Department was still considering his request for witness protection.
Two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot and killed Enrique Barroga, the director of the Cotabato City Assessor's Office, while he was travelling by car on a main street in Cotabato City. He was killed two months after he had complied with a subpoena issued by government investigators regarding abuses by Ampatuan local government officials.
Human Rights Watch called on President Benigno Aquino III to direct the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate these killings immediately, including possible involvement by persons already in custody, and to prosecute all those responsible.
"Abuses in Maguindanao have not stopped with the arrest of six members of the Ampatuan family," Pearson said. "Prompt investigation of ongoing crimes is essential to prevent further killing and to stop suspects from interfering with the trial."