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Philippines court to deliver verdict in worst political massacre

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Manila (AFP)

A Manila court is to hand down its verdict Thursday on the alleged masterminds of the Philippines' worst political massacre, in a case that highlighted the nation's culture of impunity.

Gunmen slaughtered 58 people, including 32 journalists, and dumped their bodies in hastily dug pits as part of a mass killing that was one of the worst ever of media workers.

Among the roughly 100 defendants are key members of the Ampatuan family, the powerful political dynasty accused of orchestrating the November 23, 2009 slaughter in a bid to quash an election challenge from a rival clan.

The case drew international criticism of the nation's culture of impunity where powerful and wealthy political dynasties often operate above the law.

If convicted, in the culmination of a painfully slow trial marred by allegations of bribery and the murder of witnesses, the suspects could face decades behind bars.

The Ampatuans ruled the impoverished southern province of Maguindanao and were allowed to build a heavily armed militia by then president Gloria Arroyo to serve as a buffer against a long-running Muslim insurgency in the region.

Prosecutors say family members and their associates carried out the attack in broad daylight on a convoy carrying an Ampatuan family rival's wife, relatives, lawyers and the journalists, who were killed in a hail of gunfire.

With scores of witnesses and mountains of legal paperwork, the case has creaked through a Philippine justice system notoriously overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.

During the case's years of delays patriarch Andal Ampatuan Snr. and seven other defendants have died.

Four Ampatuan sons are among those facing judgement, led by his namesake Andal Ampatuan Jnr., who was accused of personally leading the murders. The defendants have all pleaded not guilty.

Human Rights Watch said the case should serve as an impetus for judicial reform.

"It should not take another crime as heinous as the Maguindanao massacre for the Philippines to reform the delivery of justice," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based monitor.

To start, the Philippines must immediately track down and arrest 80 other suspects, including police officers and Ampatuan clan members who pose a risk to the prosecution witnesses and the victims' families, he said.

The victims' families have long harboured fears the defendants could win acquittal and take revenge by hunting down their accusers.

Ampatuans meanwhile won 25 local seats in May's elections including Sajid Ampatuan, a defendant in the massacre case who was released on bail.

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