MANILA, Philippines — A servant of the politically powerful clan accused in last year’s massacre of 57 people told a Philippine court Wednesday that the family members plotted the killings of rivals and journalists over dinner six days before the ambush.
The witness, Lakmudin Saliao, took the stand on the first day of trial nearly 10 months after the Nov. 23 massacre in southern Maguindanao province exposed the shocking violence of Philippine politics. Among the dead were 30 media workers traveling in an election convoy — making it the deadliest single attack on reporters in the world.
The patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr., had gathered his siblings over dinner to ask them how they could stop their political rival from running for provincial governor, one of the key regional posts that the Ampatuans had held and exploited for years, Saliao said.
Former town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the scion of the clan and the prime suspect in the massacre, replied, “That’s easy. If they come here, just kill them all,” Saliao told the court.
He said the elder Ampatuan then asked his children if they agreed with the plan, and according to Saliao, “Everybody laughed, saying, ‘It’s OK for everybody to be killed.'”
Saliao said the Ampatuan patriarch ordered that his rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, should be stopped on a highway where he was supposed to pass on the way to file his candidacy papers.
It was on a hilltop near the highway that troops recovered the 57 bodies gunned down and hastily buried along with some of the victims’ vehicles in mass graves dug by a backhoe. Mangudadatu, who was later elected governor in the May elections, had sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives accompanied by journalists in the belief that women wouldn’t be harmed.
On the day of the crime, Saliao said Ampatuan Jr. told his father through a cellular phone — its loudspeaker on — that he had blocked the convoy. The father ordered him to gun down everybody but spare the media, to which Ampatuan Jr. replied, “No … somebody could talk if we won’t wipe out everybody.”
The Ampatuans have denied the charges. Andal Ampatuan Jr. and 16 policemen were the first to be arraigned and were led in handcuffs into the courtroom packed with anxious relatives and observers inside a Manila maximum-security prison.
Nena Santos, a lawyer for the Mangudadatus, described Saliao’s testimony as “a smoking gun.”
Outside the courthouse, black-clad sharpshooters patrolled on a catwalk while dozens of heavily armed police stood guard.
Inside, Ampatuan Jr., who wore a yellow prison shirt, smiled and whispered to a lawyer as Saliao testified. Nenita Oquindo, who lost her husband and daughter to the massacre, wept as Saliao recounted how the killings were allegedly hatched.
The carnage drew international condemnation and prompted then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to impose martial law for a week as troops cracked down on the Ampatuans — her political allies.
A prominent senator, Joker Arroyo, has recently warned that the sheer volume of the case — at least 227 witnesses are listed by the prosecution and another 373 by the defense — means it could drag on for “200 years.”
Officials wouldn’t comment on how long the trial will last but cautioned it will take time.
An average criminal case takes about seven years to complete due to lack of prosecutors and judges and a huge backlog of cases. The Maguindanao massacre is considered to be the largest criminal prosecution since the country’s World War II war crime trials.
“It’s hard to fight the devil,” said Monette Salaysay, mother of Napoleon Salaysay, one of the slain journalists. “So many were killed and yet the justice is exceedingly slow for helpless people like us.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the government Wednesday to protect witnesses and round up more than 100 suspects still at large, most of them linked to the Ampatuans’ private army. The watchdog said five people with knowledge of abuses by the Ampatuans have been gunned down.
“With fewer than half of the suspects in custody, witnesses, investigators, and others who might be deemed to be a threat to the Ampatuan family are at risk,” the group said in a statement.