MANILA: A clan whose chiefs are on trial for the Philippines’ worst political massacre secured big wins in local elections this week, results showed on Friday, deepening fears that justice may never be served.
Leaders of the Ampatuan family and their gunmen are accused of massacring 58 people, including 32 journalists, in the southern province of Maguindanao more than three years ago in a bid to quash a rival’s challenge to become governor.
Wives of three senior clan figures who are on trial for the murders were reelected for town mayor posts in Maguindanao in Monday’s mid-term elections, according to the official results website.
At least 16 other members of the Ampatuan family were elected or reelected as town mayors, vice mayors and councillors in the province, according to the Commission on Elections website.
“This could really crush the people’s hopes that those responsible for the massacre will be punished,” Noemi Parcon, whose journalist husband died in the massacre, told Agence France-Presse.
Another of those reelected as a town mayor in Maguindanao was Benzar Ampatuan, 27, a grandson of Andal Ampatuan Snr, who is the patriarch of the family and is among those
detained in Manila while on trial for the massacre.
Local rights groups and election monitors said the strong performance of the Ampatuans was not a surprise, citing the well-known clan power structure in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces such as Maguindanao.
“It doesn’t matter that the massacre happened . . . as long as you’re the leader of the municipality, the respect is still there even if you are doing wrong,” said Bobby Taguntong, spokesman for a local election monitor.
Andal Ampatuan Sr. was the governor of the province at the time of the massacre. Then president Gloria Arroyo helped fund a personal army for him that was used as a proxy force against Muslim separatist rebels.
Aside from Ampatuan Sr., five of his sons and two of his grandsons are on trial. In total 93 people, many of them alleged gunmen, are on trial.
The Ampatuans deny all charges against them.
The justice proceedings are expected to take years to complete and victims’ relatives, as well as rights groups, fear the Ampatuans are using the time to sabotage the case by killing or intimidating witnesses.
Three witnesses and three more potential witnesses have been killed since 2010, according to local police.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told AFP this month that President Benigno Aquino 3rd had issued a directive to try and secure convictions against the senior Ampatuans before his term ended in 2016.
The Philippines’ political and justice systems are infamously corrupt, helping to create a “culture of impunity” in which powerful figures often use their influence to avoid punishment for criminal acts.
In this light, Harry Roque, a lawyer for families of 15 massacre victims, said the enduring political influence of the Ampatuans was a concern, and emphasised why convictions must be secured before Aquino stepped down.
“Of course we’re concerned . . . all it takes is a friendly president (to the Ampatuans) to change the equation,” Roque said.
The rival politician whose wife and relatives were killed in the massacre, Esmael Mangudadatu, became governor of Maguindanao in 2010 elections and was reelected this week.
He is the head of a Muslim clan that has long jostled for power with the Ampatuans and other families in Maguindanao.
But highlighting the ever-shifting allegiances, he has formed an alliance with some Ampatuans, although not the clan leaders and their wives.