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Politician charged with 25 murders in election-related massacre

Article published on the 2009-12-01 Latest update 2009-12-01 10:46 TU

Human rights activists in the Philippines threw paint at images of President Arroyo and members of her party in protest of extra-judicial killings, 1 December 2009(Photo: Desaparecidos)

Human rights activists in the Philippines threw paint at images of President Arroyo and members of her party in protest of extra-judicial killings, 1 December 2009
(Photo: Desaparecidos)

Prosecutors in the Philippines filed murder charges against Andal Ampatuan Jr Tuesday, accusing him of organising last week's massacre that left 57 people dead. The son of the powerful governor of Maguindanao province has been charged with 25 counts of murder.

Prosecutor Edilberto Jamora said he only charged Ampatuan Jr with 25 murders because authorities had only processed 25 death certificates, indicating that the number may rise.

The Justice Ministry has expressed concern about trying the case in the southern city of Cotabato, which has jurisdiction over the remote area where the massacres took place, for fear of witness intimidation or other repercussions.

"[Witnesses] are reluctant to go to court and they fear for their safety and their families' safety," said Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera to reporters in Manila.

The Ampatuans have ruled the southern province of Maguindanao since 2001, when Ampatuan Jr’s father became governor, with the backing of President Gloria Arroyo’s ruling coalition. The clan runs its own army and has hundreds of armed followers.

Authorities are also investigating Ampatuan Sr and seven other relatives.

"On the basis of the statements we have gathered, there are more suspects than [those] on the watch list,” said Devanadera. “There were more than a hundred who participated in this.”

Last Monday about 100 gunmen related to the Ampatuan clan killed the wife and two sisters of a political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, and the lawyers and journalists accompanying them as they went to register his nomination for governor.

More than a dozen people who were just driving by were also killed.

Mangudadatu said the killings were intended to stop him from running against Ampatuan Jr in next year’s elections.

Arroyo condemned the killings, and following the massacre, Ampatuan Jr and Sr were both expelled from her Lakas Kampi CMD. But some say that Arroyo has known for years how they run the province.

She has meanwhile launched her bid to become a Member of Parliament in next year's general election.

The constitution requires  Arroyo to step down as President next year, but she told supporters in her home province of Pampanga that she was not ready to end her political career.

"We have gone too far and too much is at stake now for us to waver in my commitment to the nation,” she said.

Critics, including the Catholic Church, say that Arroyo plans to modify the constitution and turn the country into a parliamentary system so that she can become its first Prime Minister.

Arroyo faces a very low approval rate, and unproven corruption charges. The PulseAsia polling company found last week that 51 per cent of the population does not approve of her performance as President, and 52 per cent has little or no trust in her.

Her preferred successor as President, former Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, filed his papers in Manila, and urged voters to support the ruling coalition.

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