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Latest update : 2010-09-08

The trial to judge Andal Ampatuan Jnr, a powerful Muslim politician in southern Philippines charged with organising the November murder of 57 people in his bid to win an election for the post of provincial governor, began on Wednesday.

AFP - A powerful Muslim politician went on trial in the Philippines Wednesday, accused of murdering 57 people in the country's worst massacre.

Andal Ampatuan Jnr, an ex-town mayor in his 40s and heir-apparent to one of the most powerful Muslim political clans in the south, faces life in prison if convicted of the November 2009 murders that shocked the world.

Ampatuan Jnr and more than 100 armed followers allegedly shot the victims, including 30 journalists, to stop a rival from running against him for the post of Maguindanao provincial governor in this year's national elections.

The first witness, Ampatuan Jnr's former aide Lakmudin Saliao, told the court how, six days before the attack, the Ampatuan clan gathered to debate how to deal with the rival politician's electoral challenge.

"That's easy, father. We kill all of them when they come here," Saliao quoted Ampatuan Jnr as telling his father and namesake in the meeting, which the witness said gathered all clan leaders at the patriarch's home.

Saliao said Ampatuan Snr then instructed his son Ampatuan Jnr 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.

Ampatuan Snr concluded the meeting after his other sons and cousins voiced their approval of the plan, said Saliao, who told the court he was standing in front of Andal Jnr at the time.

Five other Ampatuans, including the patriarch Ampatuan Snr, are among the 196 people facing charges related to the massacre, although more than 100 of the alleged gunmen remain at large.

The victims, along with some of their vehicles, were pushed into mass graves the suspects had dug beforehand with a backhoe, according to police.

Ampatuan Jnr, wearing a yellow prison shirt and flanked by plainclothes police, sat impassively behind his lawyers as the witness took the stand.

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 start last week but presiding judge Jocelyn Reyes moved it back seven days to give the Ampatuan lawyers more time to comment on previous court rulings related to the case.

Ampatuan Jnr's lawyers moved for another 10-day postponement on Wednesday, but the judge rejected the motion and allowed state prosecutors to present their witnesses.

Manette Salaysay, a relative of one of the victims, hailed the start of the trial.

"It is difficult to fight these devils," she told AFP during a break in the hearing, referring to Ampatuan Jnr and 16 police officers also facing trial on charges relating to the massacre.

"We want to see the light of justice," Salaysay added.

Rights groups and the victims' relatives have accused the Ampatuans of applying delaying tactics while ordering their men to terrorise witnesses.

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia chief of the New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch, said five people with knowledge of alleged abuses by the Ampatuans had been killed since the massacre.

They included a key massacre witness who could have placed Ampatuan Jnr at the scene, she said.

"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."

Ampatuan Snr 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.

Date created : 2010-09-08


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