PHILIPPINES – More than 20 witnesses of the massacre of 57 people in Ampatuan town, two of them directly involved the massacre, have come forward to testify against prime suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., said Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said on November 28.

The massacre on November 23 sent shock waves not only throughout the Philippines but abroad, with international organizations including the United Nations and the European Union condemning it and urging the Philippine government to work for its speedy resolution.

The victims, including women and 32 journalists, were in a convoy to cover the filing of a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan town, who is planning to run for governor in the predominantly Muslim Maguindanao province. Dozens of gunmen allegedly abducted the convoy and butchered them en masse on a nearby hill. All 57 people were raked with gunfire at close range and their bodies were hacked to pieces.

Some were pinned by a backhoe, which also dug the mass graves. The main suspect – Andal Ampatuan Jr., the son of a political warlord – has been detained in Manila and faces multiple murder charges.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has sent two foreign experts to Mindanao to help in the investigation of the grisly massacre. Peruvian forensic expert Dr. Jose Pablo Baraybar and weapons expert Mr. Christopher Cobb-Smith are part of the 16-member fact-finding team that will conduct a parallel investigation to validate official findings in the case, as mandated by the CHR Constitution.

CHR head Leila de Lima had earlier proposed the creation of an independent body to probe the massacre, which was allegedly perpetrated by the powerful Ampatuan clan against their political rivals, the Mangudadatus.

Journalists killed

 “This is the worst mass killing of journalists and media workers ever recorded,” the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists told President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in a letter Friday, reminding her that 75 journalists had already been killed during the past eight years of her presidency.

That figure excludes the November 23rd killings. Only four convictions have been secured by Arroyo’s administration in the journalist killings, the media watchdog said.

“The international media community are grieving and distraught at the failure of the government… to uphold its responsibility to protect our colleagues and to end the long-running culture of impunity,” it said in the letter.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban condemned the killings, expressing hope that “no effort will be spared to bring justice and to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

Though the Philippines prides itself on having one of the freest presses in Southeast Asia, many journalists in the country say they face constant danger and they don’t expect even high-profile condemnations to stop the killings.

Witnesses come forward

Devanadera said the witnesses sought the government’s protection, as they feared for their lives and those of their families. She said some of the witnesses admitted they were reluctant to testify but still went ahead after seeing the government could provide them adequate protection. Others decided to speak up to ease their consciences.

“More than 20 have come forward and volunteered to be witnesses. These are real witnesses… and there are witnesses that can prove that before the massacre they were present at the place where Ampatuan gave the instruction as to where the shooting should take place,” she added.

Asked by reporters if the crime was premeditated, Devanadera said the perpetrators dug the graves even before the crime, which, showed they prepared for it and that there was an intention to kill.

Devanadera said that based on the statements of the witnesses, more than 100 armed men were involved in the killings. She added that more arrests would be made as soon as the police have finished their investigation into the involvement of other Ampatuans in the crime.

Meanwhile, National Bureau of Investigation Director Nestor Mantaring assured the public that Ampatuan Jr. was not getting any special treatment from the NBI, where he is detained.


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