MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is aiming to speed up convictions in the country’s worst political massacre to ensure justice amid fears the trial could drag on for years, the country’s top justice official said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the government wants judgments against the Ampatuan Muslim clan, accused of being behind the murder of 58 people in 2009.
“The marching order of the President is that during his term up to 2016, there’s got to be convictions,” de Lima told AFP in an interview.
She concedes it may be impossible to convict all the suspects but hopes they can at least get the “principal accused”.
More funds were being allocated to protect witnesses as the case moves through a special trial court.
The prosecution has so far completed presenting evidence and the testimonies of 130 witnesses to pin down clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr and other family members for the massacre.
She said the government viewed the Ampatuan massacre “as the single most important case” that needed to be resolved to show the public it was serious in ending a culture of impunity afflicting the country.
“It is a litmus test for the government. If we fail to get convictions (by 2016), the public will be very disappointed because that will mean that wheels of justice in this country really grind so slowly.”
“There will be a general feeling of helplessness,” she warned.
The Ampatuans allegedly ordered the massacre to stop a political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, from running against one of its members for governor of Maguindanao, a poor farming province in southern Mindanao island.
Andal Ampatuan Jnr, allegedly led his clan’s private army in waylaying a convoy carrying his rival’s wife, relatives, lawyers and 32 journalists, and then gunning them down on a grassy hill.
Witnesses said Ampatuan Jnr personally took part in the killings after the clan patriarch gave his consent during a family meeting days earlier.
The Ampatuans had ruled Maguindanao for about a decade under the patronage of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who had used the clan’s militia as a buffer against Muslim separatist rebels.
The province and other parts of Mindanao are the bastions of the Philippines’ Muslim minority and some Muslim groups have waged a separatist rebellion for decades.
Other clans like the Mangudadatus and Ampatuans have entered politics, jostling for regional power.
Deadly rivalries among these clans are common in the south, although the 2009 massacre was the worst of its kind.
When President Aquino assumed office in 2010, he vowed justice. But of the 196 accused, 93 still remain at large and pose a threat to witnesses.
The Ampatuan patriarch, two sons and several family members are among those in detention while being tried in the emotionally-charged case, de Lima said.
But even in jail, the Ampatuans remained influential, with their wealth enabling them to retain a battery of highly-paid lawyers who try to block each and every move by the prosecution, she added.
Some 72 clan members not accused in the case are also running as candidates in this month’s local elections, including so-called “good Ampatuans” under the political party of Aquino.
While it contests only local positions, the clan could use its remaining political clout to consolidate power and continue intimidating opponents, rights groups say.
“Because of their resources and money, they still have minions in Maguindanao, and we cannot totally rule them out (as a political force),” de Lima stressed.
“We cannot completely say that Maguindanao no longer has a culture of fear.”
She said at least 12 witnesses in the case are guarded round the clock in secret safe-houses.
At least three witnesses have been killed since 2010, including a former Ampatuan family employee whose dismembered remains were found stuffed into a sack in 2012.