Brutal politics of Philippines on trial as clan boss denies 57 killings

Fears of corruption as the man accused of masterminding country's worst single episode of political violence appears in dock

The tropical, emerald hills of southern Mindanao stretch into the horizon as Aquiles Zonio stares blankly into the only visible scar in this picturesque landscape – a freshly dug hole in one of the highest peaks.

Zonio should have been found dumped inside this hole with a bullet in the back of his head. In late November, 57 people on their way to an election office were pulled from their cars, dragged to this isolated spot, and shot and hacked to death. The killers dumped the bodies into this makeshift grave, which had been dug three days earlier as the attack was being planned.

The man accused of masterminding the massacre in Maguindanao province, the Philippines' worst single episode of political violence, yesterday pleaded not guilty to the crime.

Andal Ampatuan Junior, a provincial mayor and ally of President Gloria Arroyo, is charged with plotting and leading the mass execution. The victims included lawyers, at least one pregnant woman, and more than 30 journalists – the largest number of journalists to die in a single attack anywhere. Prosecutors say Ampatuan helped 100 armed thugs pull the victims from their cars and hack or shoot them to death.

Zonio, a freelance reporter, managed to avoid the attack having being tipped off earlier that he was among the targets. "We had breakfast together that morning," he recalls of his last meeting with his colleagues. "We were laughing and joking. Then I hear all my friends had been killed – every single one. I still cannot believe it."

Even in the notoriously unstable and bloodstained southern Philippines, where swaggering families rule over feudal-style dynasties, the brazenness of the atrocity stunned observers. And Zonio, like most Filipinos, has no doubts about who sent the killers.

"Of course it was the Ampatuan family," he says. "They think they are untouchable because of their power and their closeness to President Gloria [Macapagal-Arroyo]."

In a deeply flawed democracy, where authority in many local areas comes out of the barrel of a gun, the Ampatuan clan is just one of dozens that use elections to legitimise, not win, power. Led by ageing family patriarch Andal Senior, the clan dominates Maguindanao province. For years, they have carried the region for President Arroyo, delivering blocs of votes to her in the 2004 and 2007 general elections. In return, critics claim, she turned a blind eye to the vast voter fraud, intimidation and almost medieval cruelty that her allies used to hold power.

"Everyone knows from oral testimony how horrific the Ampatuans are," said a researcher in the Philippines for Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is investigating the killings.

Hundreds of cases of bombings, abduction, murder and torture have been recorded. With a private squad of 3,000 armed goons, the clan is notorious for the horrifying treatment it doles out to rivals. "People are tied to trees and cut into pieces with chainsaws, or buried alive," says the HRW worker. "One of their stunts is to remove the skin from the feet and make victims run for their lives as they shoot at them."

Around Maguindanao's capital, Shariff Aguak, few will speak openly about Andal Ampatuan, who is provincial governor and lives behind the high walls of a mansion in the centre of the town. Off the record, some say he accumulated his wealth through ruthless land-grabbing from local farmers. Now his well-fed features fill out campaign posters pasted around the town for the elections in May. He is rumoured to have six wives and at least 20 children, including Andal Jr, the mayor of the Maguindanao municipality Datu Unsay.

Police believe Andal Sr. and his family were enraged when they learnt that a local politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, intended to challenge Andal Jr for governor of Maguindanao in the May election. As Mangudadatu's supporters made their way to file his candidacy on November 23, over 100 armed men struck, abducting and murdering everyone in the convoy, including Mangudadatu's wife and two sisters, one of whom was pregnant.

"Their goal was simple," says Mangudadatu. "They didn't want to be replaced by someone who has the vision to uplift the lives of local people and bring decency to our province and country."

Mangudadatu claims his wife called him on her mobile phone as the massacre began, reporting the presence of Andal Jr before the conversation was cut off. She as later found in the makeshift grave with deep hack marks around her neck.

Observers are mystified why the Ampatuan clan reacted so furiously to a political challenge they were expected to win anyway: given their overwhelming local heft, Mangudadatu was a rank outsider. Hubris, and anger that they were being challenged at all, is the answer, Zonio believes. "Their pride was hurt. They believe they are the law: prosecutor, judge and executioner. They think they are demigods, untouchable," he said.

That over-reaction has cost the family dearly. Unable to ignore the fury that followed the Philippines' worst bout of political violence, President Arroyo briefly declared martial law in the province in a bid to neutralise the local security forces, believed to be under the sway of the Ampatuans. When police raided the family's homes in December, they reportedly found an arsenal of weapons, and sacks of partially destroyed voter identification cards. Ardal Sr is now under arrest awaiting trial and his son faces 17 counts of murder. The family's lawyer, Sigfried Fortun, is refusing to comment on the looming court battle except to say he believes they will win, but few others share that confidence.

"There is overwhelming evidence against them and the Department of Justice is heavily involved, so I don't think they can escape justice," says Mangudadatu. But he warns that the trial should be watched carefully around the world. "The relationship between the Ampatuans and the president was very close so we must be vigilant about political influence in the trial," he said.

Still, he believes the Maguindanao massacre could be a turning point in Filipino politics. In the last two months, the central government has made fresh moves to outlaw over 130 private armies around the country, many linked to wealthy family dynasties like the Ampatuans.

But dismantling the political influence of the clans is a mammoth task, and President Arroyo is an unlikely revolutionary: her family is soaked in the wealth of the landed elite, and her husband, Jose Miguel, is widely believed to have used his position to enrich himself and his family.

Zonio says the Ampatuans are probably a spent force in Maguindanao, but he worries about who will take their place. He relives what happened on November 23 over and over. "When I think about what they did I have one major wish: that they bring back the death penalty. That would be a suitable punishment."

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