Clan in Philippines Accused of More Killings

The New York Times
Published: November 16, 2010

MANILA — Members of a powerful political clan in the southern Philippines whose leaders have been charged in the massacre of 57 people last November are implicated in dozens of other killings dating back decades, Human Rights Watch alleged in a report released Tuesday.

Some of the 56 earlier killings detailed by the New York-based rights group occurred with the knowledge, if not the complicity, of members of the police and the military, according to the report. No one in the Ampatuan family, long a dominant political force in Maguindanao Province, was charged in the earlier killings, whose victims included political opponents and their relatives, public officials, people whose land the family wanted and members of the Ampatuans’ own organization who disobeyed orders, the report said.

Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of the family patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., is currently on trial for the Nov. 23, 2009 killings in Maguindanao, which watchdog groups say included the worst-ever mass killing of journalists. About 30 of the victims were journalists and media support staff who were accompanying a group of people on their way to file candidacy papers for a political rival of Mr. Ampatuan Jr.

Mr. Ampatuan Sr. and nearly 200 other people have also been charged in the killings, but most of them remain at large.

The Human Rights Watch report said the 2009 massacre “was not an aberration, but the foreseeable consequence of unchecked killings and other serious abuses in which the Ampatuans were implicated.” It said the Ampatuans and their militia “have a reputation for employing particularly brutal methods of killing,” including rape and, in at least one case, the use of a chainsaw.

But the report, “They Own the People, said a more significant issue than the violence is “the support that the national government provides such families throughout the country, and the near total impunity that their abusive militias enjoy.”

Most members of the Ampatuans’ militia also belong to state-sanctioned paramilitary forces, and some are regular members of the police and the army, the report said. State-backed militias have a long history in the Philippines, where the government has used them to combat insurgent movements.

James Ross, the legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch, urged President Benigno S. Aquino III on Tuesday to take steps to investigate the abuses in Maguindanao and by some 125 private militias controlled by politicians nationwide. He said Mr. Aquino should order the militias disarmed and address the “rampant problem of military weaponry being used by local government officials for serious abuses.”

Ricky Carandang, a spokesman for Mr. Aquino, said the administration was taking the issue seriously. “We’re working on it,” he wrote in a text message on Tuesday. “The Ampatuan case is being tried, the prosecution is serious. We’re quietly laying the groundwork for dismantling private armies, but some cases are harder to fix than others.”

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said she would recommend a “serious reexamination” of a 2006 executive order issued by Mr. Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, which expanded the use of certain kinds of paramilitary forces and enabled the Ampatuans to bolster their militia. “That should be seriously considered,” she said.

Philip Sigfrid Fortun, an attorney for Andal Ampatuan Jr. and his father, could not be reached Tuesday. He has denied that his clients were involved in the Nov. 23 massacre.

Many of the incidents detailed in the report were brought to the attention of the authorities, Human Rights Watch said. But the Ampatuans were left untouched, allowing them to consolidate their power, recruit thousands of militia members and amass at least 5,000 weapons in the nine years that Andal Ampatuan Sr. was governor of Maguindanao Province.

Perhaps the most gruesome episode in the report was described by Suwaib Upham, a former Ampatuan militia member. Mr. Upham told Human Rights Watch that in 2002, the day after a bombing that killed Saudi Ampatuan, who was mayor of the town of Datu Piang, 20 people from the town were rounded up and taken by truck to a mountain. There, he said, the victims, including women and children, were tied up and killed with a chainsaw.

In June, Mr. Upham himself was killed after giving accounts to journalists of his role in the Nov. 23 massacre.

About Carlos H. Conde

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