Philippine court convicts ‘warlords’ in brutal massacre, including of journalists, 10 years ago

The two main accused - former mayor Andal "Datu Unsay" Ampatuan Jr (pictured) and his brother, Zaldy - were found guilty, while some other members of their family were acquitted. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - A Philippine court on Thursday (Dec 19) convicted three political warlords and dozens of their kin for the slaughter of 58 men and women, including dozens of journalists, in a brazen act that horrified the world more than a decade ago.

In a 761-page ruling, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes found Andal Ampatuan Jr, a former town mayor, and his brothers, Zaldy, a former governor, and Anwar, a former vice mayor, guilty of the mass killing and sentenced them to a maximum 40 years in prison, without parole.

Another brother, Sajid Islam Ampatuan, a town mayor, was acquitted.

Their father, Andal Ampatuan Sr, was also found liable for the crime. But he died of liver cancer in 2015, and the cases against him were dismissed.

Two more of their kin and over 20 of their gunmen received similar sentences for directly taking part in the killing.

Fifteen people were convicted as "accessories" and jailed for 10 years. At least 50 others were acquitted.

Lawyers for the victims cheered and clapped as the verdict was read.

"We predicted that this is the only way the judgment should go," said Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, himself a former TV journalist. "As I've said before, criminals who murder or in any way endanger journalists in this part of the world will not go unpunished," he said.

The "Maguindanao massacre" came out of a fierce rivalry between two clans wrestling for control of Maguindanao province in war-torn southern Philippines.

The family of Andal Ampatuan Sr ruled Maguindanao through a rein of terror since 1986, unleashing violence and brutality on voters and his rivals while cultivating powerful patrons in Manila.

At the peak of his influence under former president Gloria Arroyo, his private army numbered over 2,000 men.

But in 2009, a rival clan challenged his son, Andal Ampatuan Jr, for the governorship.

On Nov 23 that year, Mr Esmael Mangudadatu sent his wife and two sisters, accompanied by a group of journalists, lawyers and supporters, to Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital controlled by the Ampatuan family, to file his election papers.

He could not file the papers himself because the Ampatuans had threatened to kill him if he set foot on Shariff Aguak. He thought they would not dare hurt women, and the journalists would further discourage them.

Along the way, though, the Mangudadatus' convoy was stopped at a checkpoint on a highway cutting through a banana grove.

Andal Ampatuan Jr and about a hundred men then diverted the convoy off the busy highway for 2.5km along a rutted track to a deserted hilly area.

Some of the women were dragged out of the cars and their genitals were slashed. Wielding a samurai sword, Ampatuan Jr led the attack while his men peppered victims with bullets at point-blank range or mutilated their bodies with machetes.

Mr Mangudadatu's wife, Genalyn, was slashed seven times, including across her lower stomach and genitals, before being shot 17 times. Others were tortured; the left ring finger of one woman was amputated while she watched screaming for her life.

One of the victims, Mr Noel Decana, managed to send a desperate SMS to his brother, pleading, "pray for us, our situation is critical".

Six of the victims were not even part of Mr Manguadadatu's group. They were just unlucky enough to be driving behind the convoy in two vehicles at the time.

At midday, two hours after setting up the roadblock, the killers fled the hillside after hearing an approaching helicopter, leaving scattered bodies behind.

In all, 58 men and women were slaughtered. Thirty-two of the victims were journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called it the single deadliest event for journalists in history.

Witnesses provided chilling accounts that filled gaps in the narrative.

A personal aide testified hearing Andal Ampatuan Sr telling his son, Andal Jr, by speakerphone: "You know what to do. Kill them all. Put the media on one side."

Andal Jr then replied, "No, father. Let's go all the way. We're doing this anyway. Let's go all the way. Let's kill them all, lest they talk."

The aide told the court the elder Ampatuan was "all smiles" after he was told later that everyone in the convoy was dead.

Eighty suspects have yet to be arrested, including 14 other members of the Ampatuan clan.

Mr Mangudadatu was elected governor of Maguindanao, after the massacre. He held on to the post for nine years till May this year. He is now a lawmaker, representing the province's second district.

The wife of a cousin succeeded him as Maguindanao governor.

Though pushed back, the Ampatuans remain a political force in Maguindanao. They won 25 seats in the province in local elections held in May this year.

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