MANILA, Philippines - A helper of the politically powerful clan accused in last year’s massacre of 57 people told a court yesterday 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 Maguindanao. Among the 57 fatalities were 30 media workers traveling in a convoy, making it the deadliest single attack on journalists in the world.
The patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr., had gathered his sons and cousins 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, must be stopped on a highway where he was supposed to pass on the way to file his candidacy papers.
Saliao said Ampatuan Sr. then instructed his son Ampatuan Jr. how to execute the plan.
“Do not entrust the roadblock to others. You yourself should stop them at the highway, near the place where a backhoe is conducting some diggings,” the 33-year-old witness quoted the patriarch as telling his son at a family meeting on Nov. 17.
It was on the same spot that troops recovered the 57 bodies gunned down and hastily buried in mass graves dug by a backhoe.
Saliao yesterday also accused former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Zaldy Ampatuan of having direct participation in the alleged conspiracy to waylay the Mangudadatu convoy on Nov. 23, 2009, and that he left Maguindanao before the massacre to evade suspicions that their family had a hand in the killings. ?The testimony was contrary to Zaldy’s claim that he could never have participated in the crime because he was in Manila at the time of the carnage.
Mangudadatu, who was elected governor in the May elections, had sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives accompanied by journalists in the belief that they would not be killed.
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.
Black-clad sharpshooters patrolled the premises while dozens of heavily armed police stood guard.
Ampatuan Jr., in his 40s, faces life in prison if convicted.
Wearing a yellow prison shirt and flanked by plainclothes police, the primary suspect sat impassively behind his lawyers as the witness took the stand.
Saliao, a longtime house helper of the Ampatuans, said Andal Sr. presided over several meetings to discuss how they would prevent Mangudadatu from filing his certificate of candidacy for the gubernatorial post in Maguindanao. ?The meetings were attended by Andal Jr. and his brothers Anwar and Zaldy, among others, he said. ?One of the meetings was held on Nov. 17, where Andal Jr. allegedly told their father that the “easy” way to stop Mangudadatu was to “kill all of them when they come here.” Anwar added that “it was embarrassing” on their part that somebody was trying to challenge their family.?Zaldy allegedly butted in and replied: “If that is the agreement we must carefully plan that out to ensure that we will not get caught.”?Andal Jr. later assured his father that they can carry out the plan. ?Saliao, 33, is a trusted aide of the patriarch and has been serving the clan since 1987. He said during all the meetings, he was beside Andal Sr. attending to his needs.?On the eve of the massacre, the Ampatuans allegedly gathered again and finalized their plan. After which, Zaldy allegedly said: “If our final decision was to kill them all, I will go to Manila so that they will not suspect us.” ?Zaldy’s lawyer Redemberto Villanueva, meanwhile, belittled Saliao’s statement as “rehearsed perjured testimony” and added that it does not give weight to their pending case at the Court of Appeals (CA).
“The proceedings in court today are extraneous to our CA petition. In fact, we are not sure whether Judge Reyes will find acceptable the obviously rehearsed perjured testimony of Saliao,” Villanueva said.
“Besides his testimony is not yet completed. His falsities will be exposed during cross-examination by Unsay’s (Andal Jr.) lawyers,” he said.
The former ARMM governor had previously been cleared by former Justice secretary Alberto Agra, who said there was no proof of his involvement in the conspiracy. Zaldy has repeatedly denied involvement in the crime. A public uproar prompted Agra to review and later reverse his decision.?Earlier this week, Zaldy through his lawyer asked the CA to void Agra’s later decision.
Lawyer Harry Roque, on the other hand, said Saliao’s testimony was sufficient to prove that the governor was involved in the massacre.
The trial, held at a special courtroom built inside a maximum-security police jail in southern Manila, is being held amid allegations of witness intimidation and fears the case could drag on for years.
It was to have started last week but presiding judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes moved it back seven days to give the Ampatuan lawyers more time to comment on previous court rulings related to the case.
Ampatuan Jr.’s lawyers moved for another 10-day postponement on Wednesday, but the judge rejected the motion and allowed state prosecutors to present their witnesses.
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 close political allies.
Sen. 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 would 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.
Round up the 100 at large - Rights group
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.
“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 justice is exceedingly slow for helpless people like us.”
Human Rights Watch said the killing since the massacre of five people with knowledge of abuses by the Ampatuans shows that the family still wields considerable power.
They included a key massacre witness who could have placed Ampatuan Jr. at the scene, said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Abuses in Maguindanao have not stopped with the arrest of six members of the Ampatuan family,” Pearson said in a statement.
“Prompt investigation of ongoing crimes is essential to prevent further killing and to stop suspects from interfering with the trial.”
Pearson said the start of the trial before Judge Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court in Taguig City is a step for justice, but the government needs to arrest all those implicated and provide better protection for witnesses.
The defendants include the lead suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr., then mayor of the town of Datu Unsay. Five other Ampatuans, including the patriarch Ampatuan Sr., are among the 196 people facing charges related to the massacre.
“The quest for justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre begins now. But the dozens of suspects still at large and the threat to witnesses shows that there is a long road ahead,” Pearson said.
Suwaib Upahm, who had worked for the Ampatuans for several years, told Human Rights Watch of three killings of drivers ordered by the Ampatuans following the massacre, including the driver of a police car that Andal Jr. would often use.
No charges have been filed in these cases.
Ampatuan Sr. and his clan controlled Maguindanao with brutal efficiency over the past decade under the patronage of then-president Gloria Arroyo. The clan leader was governor and his sons and other relatives were town mayors.
Arroyo turned a blind eye to their excesses as she used the Ampatuans’ vast private army as a proxy force against Muslim separatists, as well as its influence to win votes in the troubled region for her political allies.
Feared and loathed by his enemies, Ampatuan Jr. is the heir apparent of the powerful Muslim clan whose family history is written in blood.
The chubby, stone-faced man in his 40s has a penchant for expensive guns.
As a bulwark against a decades-old separatist rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives, the Ampatuans were given a lot of leeway, said Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies scholar at the University of the Philippines.
“They shared power amongst themselves, ruling with an iron fist in Maguindanao backed up by their huge armory,” Wadi told AFP.
“The Ampatuans are the political warlords in the area. Any attempt at politics by a rival family they consider as threat to their rule is violently cut short,” he said.
Ampatuan Jr. had a Maguindanao town created in his nickname, Datu Unsay, by a Muslim regional autonomous government led by an older brother. Their father groomed the favorite son and namesake as his successor as provincial governor.
The clan rose to political prominence when Andal Sr. was named officer-in-charge of the province after strongman president Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1986, Wadi said.
He eventually was elected governor of the province in 2001, and has since consolidated his grip on power by stockpiling arms and co-opting government militiamen deputized to fight against insurgent groups.
The prosecution has called the attention of the court over a supposedly “irresponsible” allegation of the lawyer of three indicted policemen in the Maguindanao massacre against a prosecutor.
In a four-page motion, government lawyers led by Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Richard Anthony Fadullon asked Judge Solis-Reyes to order lawyer Ferdinand Tamaca to explain why he should not be cited for contempt over the allegation that Fadullon has “influence” over the judge.
Tamaca is the counsel for accused PO3 Gibrael Alano, PO2 Rexzon Guiamoi, and SPO1 Samad Maguindra. They had sought the inhibition of Solis-Reyes from hearing the multiple murder case. Tamaca has filed an “urgent second motion to resolve motion for inhibition.”
“Atty. Tamaca plumbed the depths of his unprofessionalism by alleging that the undersigned Senior Deputy State Prosecutor, as officer-in-charge of the Quezon City Prosecution Office, has ‘influence’ over and a ‘special relationship’ with the Presiding Judge,” the prosecutors said in their motion.
Prosecutors said Tamaca was reckless in claiming that just because Solis-Reyes was a former prosecutor, she is biased and partial to the prosecution. - With AP, Pia Lee-Brago, Reinir Padua
source phil star