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Philippines massacre trial targets Ampatuan clan

As a trial in Manila focuses on the Ampatuan clan, accused of a politically-motivated massacre last November, they remain powerful on their home turf.

By Correspondent / January 22, 2010

Andal Ampatuan Jr. (c.), a local mayor of Maguindanao province, is escorted by National Bureau of Investigation agents inside the courtroom at a police camp in Quezon City on Jan. 20.

Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

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Sharrif Aguak, Philippines

The politically motivated massacre of 57 people in the Philippines in November, the worst case of election-related violence in decades, prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government to promise to rein in the country's warlords.

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Now that promise is being put to the test, with a trial in Manila for members of the Ampatuan clan accused of carrying out the killings. But here in Shariff Aguak, the clan's stronghold, many people still speak of the Ampatuans in whispers, if at all. Some are loyal; others are plain scared.

“It’s very sensitive to talk about these things. We can’t speak. So we don’t,” says a local official.

Testimony in the weekly pre-trial hearings in Manila has been gripping. Eyewitnesses tell how a convoy of politicians, relatives, friends and reporters were abducted last November, taken to a hillside near this provincial capital, and 57 of them were shot dead. Videos of grave exhumations are played; distressed relatives leave the room.

The Ampatuan scion, Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., is the prime murder suspect. His arrest and that of other Ampatuans appears to spell the clan’s political downfall, as leaders vow to see justice done.

An aura of violence has long surrounded the Ampatuan political dynasty in this largely Muslim corner of the Philippines. After an election in 2007, local school administrator Musa Dimasidsing told a national commission on electoral fraud that he'd personally witnessed ballot stuffing. He was murdered soon after. The crime was never solved.

Nor is it certain that the clan’s ruthless grip will ease, even if the charges stick against Andal Jr. and his accomplices. Hundreds of heavily armed militiamen are still on the run. Relatives of trial witnesses have been harassed; at least one has been slain. A judge in Manila, where the case was transferred, declined to take it on, citing the safety of his family. And the authority of Andal Ampatuan Sr., the detained clan patriarch, still holds here.

An early test will be elections in May, when a rival clan is vying for the post of governor. The clan, the Mangudadutus, were the targets of the Nov. 23 massacre. The wife of Esmail Mangudadatu led the convoy, which sought to file her husband’s candidacy papers in this Ampatuan stronghold, believing – wrongly – that whatever the animosity between the clans, no women would be harmed.

Much of the Philippines is ruled by political dynasties who divide up the spoils and deliver votes to national allies. The Ampatuans have been a powerful force in the electoral coalition of President Arroyo. Many of the political clans have private armies and deal firmly with opponents. But few rivaled the political clout and fearsome firepower of the Ampatuans, who had over 2,400 gunmen on the payroll.

After the massacre, security forces recovered weapon caches inside the high pastel walls of the clan’s mansions. The arsenal held high-powered assault rifles, rocket launchers, artillery pieces and nearly a million rounds of ammunition. Some rifles were illegal imports. “We don’t have that in our inventory,” says an army officer. Their fleet of 23 cars reportedly worth nearly $1 million included two Humvees.

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