Nine police and two government militiamen pleaded not guilty yesterday to murder charges in last year’s massacre of 57 people, the Philippines’ worst political violence allegedly orchestrated by members of a powerful clan.
The officers are among 198 suspects charged in the Nov. 23 killings of journalists, supporters and family members of a political candidate — an unprecedented slaughter even in a country notorious for election violence and political killings.
The officers were arraigned three months after principal suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr, former town mayor in the southern province of Maguindanao, also pleaded not guilty to charges that he led police and government paramilitaries in the killings.
The emotional trial — the Philippines’ largest criminal case since World War II — opened in January. Since then, doubts have emerged of political interference, stoked by a sudden decision last week by acting justice Alberto Agra to clear Ampatuan’s brother and a cousin of murder charges, citing lack of evidence.
Agra’s move triggered protests from his own prosecutors, journalists’ groups, human rights organizations and the victims’ families, who questioned Philippine President Gloria Arroyo’s commitment to seeking justice.
The Ampatuans have been Arroyo’s close political allies for years, helping her win 2004 elections. Arroyo spokesman Gary Olivar said the president was studying Agra’s decision and consulting lawyers.
In another decision criticized publicly, authorities at the maximum-security jail housing the massacre suspects allowed Ampatuan to hold a news conference on Tuesday, during which he said that Arroyo remained a family friend.
He professed his innocence again and even endorsed a presidential candidate.
Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno expressed surprise yesterday that prison officials allowed Ampatuan to address reporters and said he would investigate.
“I was shocked to be honest. It looked like he was on vacation. He did not look like an inmate,” Puno said, describing a smiling Ampatuan sitting at a table, looking fresh and relaxed.
Witnesses have testified that Ampatuan led dozens of gunmen in blocking a convoy of the rival Mangudadatu clan members, followers and journalists as they were about to register a gubernatorial candidate to challenge the Ampatuans’ control of the province. They were later shot and buried in mass graves on a nearby hilltop.
Among other suspects are Ampatuan’s father and family patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr, and four other relatives.
Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes yesterday allowed a delay in the arraignment of four other police because of a motion to quash charges filed by their lawyer.
The policemen, wearing detainee shirts, were handcuffed amid tight security at the packed courtroom. The handcuffs were briefly removed when they entered their plea to multiple murders.
Families of the victims were among those attending the proceedings. Several of the them petitioned the judge on Tuesday to suspend the trial until a new president has succeeded Arroyo in July. They were not confident of attaining justice while Arroyo remains in office, their lawyer, Harry Roque said, citing the decision to drop charges against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan.
“The decision dropping murder charges against them was so sly and done on a weekend when no one was looking,” Roque told reporters after the hearing. “It is so brazen, and shows that justice will not be reached in this administration.”