Justice Is Elusive, but Not Fear, in Philippine Town

Published: May 27, 2010
The New York Times

AMPATUAN, PHILIPPINES — Maguid Amolan and his family were asleep when the blast went off over their heads. “We heard a loud bang,” said Mr. Amolan, 48, a clerk in the town hall. “We were startled and shaken but were not surprised by what happened.”

Posters and billboards supporting Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his family are seen in downtown Maguindanao on Thursday.

For weeks, starting in March, this town was under siege, repeatedly shelled by grenade launchers and 60-millimeter mortars, the police say. The Amolans’ house was struck about 2 a.m. on April 10 by a projectile fired from about three kilometers, or two miles, away, said Rodelio Cabaong, a police investigator.

No one has claimed responsibility for the shelling, and the police have not publicly named suspects or made arrests. But the attacks began shortly after the deputy mayor testified in a murder case against members of the family for which the town is named: the Ampatuans, long one of the most powerful political clans in the Philippines.

At least 16 members of the family are among the 196 people now charged in Manila in connection with the worst massacre in recent Philippine history. Most of the 57 killed last November were on their way to file election papers for a political rival of the Ampatuans.

Relatives and colleagues of the victims see a larger effort to intimidate witnesses and prevent them from testifying against the suspects, who include Andal Ampatuan Sr., the family patriarch who was the governor of the southern province of Maguindanao at the time of the killings, and his son Andal Jr., whom he was grooming as his successor.

But if the attacks are evidence of the persistent power of the Ampatuan family, some analysts said, they may also signal desperation over mounting threats to that power. On May 10, the man whose supporters were killed in the massacre, Esmael Mangudadatu, was elected the new governor.

“Political democracy has been restored in the province at a very high price,” Mr. Mangudadatu said after his victory, according to The Philippine Star, a newspaper. His wife was among those killed on Nov. 23.

Still, Abhoud Syed Lingga, executive director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, which has done extensive research in the politics of the region, believes the Ampatuans “will try to hold on to whatever remains of their power by whatever means.” Their main objective now, he said, “is to manage the fallout of the massacre.”

Before the election, relatives of the victims feared that the Ampatuans would be able to use their political clout — they were key allies of the departing administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — to escape prosecution, especially after the Justice Department recommended dropping charges against two of the Ampatuans. The department has since backtracked.

With the loss of several political positions on May 10 and the defection of former allies, however, the family is facing new challenges.

“Right now, nobody wants to ally themselves with them,” said the Rev. Eliseo Mercado Jr., executive director of the Institute of Autonomy and Governance, a nonprofit group in nearby Cotabato City. “They have lost their edge because of the massacre.”

Ampatuan is run by two Ampatuan cousins: Mayor Zacarias Sangki and his son, Deputy Mayor Rasul Sangki.

In January, Rasul Sangki decided to testify for the prosecution. Since then, residents here say, a war has broken out between the Ampatuans and the Sangkis.

On April 6, Zacarias Sangki’s brother died after being stabbed and shot in Cotabato.

“We don’t understand why they had to kill” him, said Abdurahman Sangki, another brother. “He was never into politics.” Abdurahman Sangki’s own compound in Ampatuan was struck by a mortar shell on April 12.

The attacks and the apparent intimidation of witnesses against the Ampatuans have alarmed groups monitoring the case. In a statement, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities “to demonstrate to witnesses that they can and will protect them and their families.” It noted that in February another man who testified against the family was shot and wounded in Datu Piang, a nearby town in Maguindanao.

“People here are afraid, especially during the night,” Mr. Cabaong, the police inspector, said of the shelling of the town, which has caused damage but no deaths so far. “One time, an attack happened every night for four nights.” On April 19, the police recorded at least seven shellings.

The Ampatuans have run the province since 1998, when Andal Ampatuan Sr. became governor. They consolidated their power by aligning themselves with Mrs. Arroyo and the military, which used the Ampatuans’ militia to help fight the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group.

Senior Superintendent Alex Lineses, police chief of Maguindanao Province, said in April that militiamen belonging to the Ampatuans may have been behind some of the attacks.

Apart from the shelling and shootings, the Ampatuans also have been accused of trying to silence the families of the massacre victims by bribing them. Jaime Espina, vice chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said his organization had received reports of attempted bribery but added that “no family has come out publicly to denounce or expose it.”

Although the Ampatuans lost control of the governorship and several other posts in the May 10 election, at least 10 of Mr. Ampatuan Sr.’s relatives won office. One daughter-in-law was elected mayor of the provincial capital. Her husband, Anwar Ampatuan, was elected deputy mayor, even though he too is behind bars in connection with the massacre. At least two other towns now have daughters-in-law of Mr. Ampatuan Sr. as mayor.

Even Mr. Ampatuan Sr. was a candidate, if unsuccessful, from prison. He ran for vice governor; he was not permitted another term as governor.

Calls to one of the Ampatuans’ lawyers and to relatives were not returned. In a statement in January, Andal Ampatuan Jr. denied he was behind the massacre. “All I want is a fair trial,” he said. “If it’s fair, I’ll win the case, 100 percent, because God knows, I know, that I am innocent of all these accusations.”

Relatives of some of the victims expressed fear that, until the guilty were punished, they and their supporters posed a danger to them and to society.

“It is disheartening,” said Eden Ridao, the widow of Anthony Ridao, a government statistician who was not part of the election convoy but was traveling nearby and caught up in the ambush. “It’s been five months, and we still don’t see the wheels of justice turning as fast as we hoped.”

“I think they remain a threat,” she said by telephone from Koronadal City, where she is based. But Mr. Mangudadatu’s victory, she hoped, will “help expedite the resolution of the murder cases” filed against the Ampatuans.

Mrs. Arroyo’s expected successor as president, Benigno S. Aquino III, pledged during his campaign to make sure justice was served. “The innocent victims of the Maguindanao massacre and their grieving families deserve no less than the full force of the law against the brutal perpetrators of this unspeakable crime,” he said.

That objective appears increasingly within reach.

“The massacre changed the basis of the alliances of the warlords of Maguindanao, because this is a matter of death and blood,” said Father Mercado, of the Institute of Autonomy and Governance.

The Ampatuans “will continue to control their own fiefdoms consisting of a few towns, but they will have difficulty re-establishing themselves politically.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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