(Manila) - A ruling family in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao committed killings and other abuses over two decades with the support of government security forces and officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. One year after the massacre of 58 people in Maguindanao province attributed to the Ampatuan family and their "private army" on November 23, 2009, the Philippine government has failed to seriously investigate atrocities by powerful ruling families, ban abusive militia forces, or curtail access of officials to military weaponry.
The 96-page report, "‘They Own the People': The Ampatuans, State-Backed Militias, and Killings in the Southern Philippines," charts the Ampatuans' rise to power, including their use of violence to expand their control and eliminate threats to the family's rule. It is based on more than 80 interviews, including with people having insider knowledge of the Ampatuan family security structure, victims of abuses and their family members, and witnesses to crimes.
"The Maguindanao massacre was not an aberration, but the foreseeable consequence of unchecked killings and other serious abuses," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. "For two decades the Ampatuans committed atrocities with a ‘private army' manned by police and soldiers carrying government-supplied weapons."
Following the November 2009 massacre, Human Rights Watch travelled to Mindanao and investigated numerous abuses implicating the Ampatuans, including more than 50 incidents of killings, torture, sexual assault, and abductions. These cases show often unrestrained brutality, such as the torture and killing by chainsaw of individuals suspected to be involved in a bomb attack against an Ampatuan family member in 2002.
The report details how the military and police provided the Ampatuan family with manpower, modern military weapons, and protection from prosecution. Most members of their private army were also members of the police, military, or state-sanctioned paramilitary forces, including Civilian Volunteer Organizations and the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs).
The Ampatuans' rise and expansion was aided by the president at the time of the massacre, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who relied on the family for crucial votes and for support in the protracted armed conflict with Moro armed groups in Mindanao. Under the Arroyo administration, militia forces, which have a long history of human rights violations in the Philippines, were greatly strengthened because of the increased sale of military weaponry to local officials and other support. The administration also failed to address impunity for serious rights abuses: in 2002 Arroyo was directly notified of 33 killings allegedly perpetrated by the Ampatuans, but she took no apparent action.
"Families like the Ampatuans have used officially sanctioned paramilitaries as private armies to spread terror and maintain power," Ross said. "The government needs to stop being part of the problem and instead disband the militias and hold abusers to account."
Human Rights Watch said that police, the Justice Department, and other government agencies have long failed to investigate crimes linked to the Ampatuans. As a result, family members have acted as if they were above the law and without fear of being held accountable.
Following the massacre and the attention it received within the Philippines and abroad, the government arrested Ampatuan family members implicated in the killings, including former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., and then-local mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the primary suspect. A government source told Human Rights Watch that when the authorities arrested Ampatuan, Jr. following the massacre, he asked, "Which hotel will I be billeted in?"
The government has charged 195 people for the killings, including 19 currently on trial, but 115 of them remain at large.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the underlying causes of the massacre and the impunity enjoyed by militia forces generally have not been addressed by the Philippine government. The Ampatuans' militia was just one of more than 100 private armies estimated to operate throughout the Philippines. In practice, their size and armament is limited only by local politicians' ability to fund operational costs. Successive administrations have not dismantled and disarmed these militia forces, as stipulated in the 1987 Philippine Constitution, nor have they investigated and prosecuted unlawful activities by those who control, arm, and use them for private ends.
Human Rights Watch called on the recently elected president, Benigno Aquino III, to fulfill his campaign promises of justice for victims of the Maguindanao massacre and other rights abuses by directing the National Bureau of Investigation to give priority to investigating the alleged abuses of the Ampatuans and their militia. He should carry out his pledge to abolish private armies by banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the Philippines. And he should act to eliminate the spread of military weaponry to armed groups outside the professional national security forces.
"The Philippine government could have turned the national tragedy of the Maguindanao massacre into a campaign to eliminate private armies and bring all those responsible for their abuses to justice," Ross said. "The Philippine people - and the country's reputation - will continue to suffer so long as powerful ruling families are calling the shots."
Accounts from "‘They Own the People': The Ampatuans, State-Backed Militias, and Killings in the Southern Philippines":
"[A neighbor] came to my house and told me that they had been massacred. Only the mother and one son survived. The perpetrators were armed men of Datu Kanor, the trusted man of Datu Unsay [Ampatuan, Jr.]. Witnesses saw and recognized them."
-A woman whose husband and seven other family members, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed by the Ampatuans in 2008, while harvesting their rice fields.
"[One day, Ampatuan, Sr. had] asked all his friends and relatives to stay in his place [for a gathering]. I went to stay in his place.... After some time I heard people shouting. I was afraid to come out and see what was happening. Then I heard the sound of a chainsaw together with the voices of screaming people.... I heard someone saying, ‘As long as you will not say who your companions were, we will continue to do this to you.' I also heard, ‘Help, help us.'.... I assumed that they were killed by the chainsaw that night, as I continuously heard the screaming voices and the sound of the chainsaw until such a time that I didn't hear it anymore.
-A resident of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, describing an incident in 2002.
"We were afraid to file [criminal complaints] because during that time all government agencies were under the Ampatuans' control. No one dared to file a case as people look at Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr. as [he was] the little president."
-A man who witnessed the killing of two of his relatives, Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
"You can't be installed as regional director [of police] if you don't go along with the policies of the [Ampatuan] government. [A police officer] has to give at least 50 weapons [to the Ampatuans] in order to become a regional director, including M14s, M16s. One [time], ... they requested some 700 firearms... The van [carrying the firearms] entered the camp, after a few hours it was escorted by the policemen from Maguindanao, taken to the [Ampatuan] residence."
-A police officer who was stationed in Maguindanao for several years.