MANILA — Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 found top members of a political clan guilty on Thursday of masterminding a 2009 massacre of 57 people, among them 32 journalists, in the country’s worst single instance of election violence.
Members of three generations of the influential Ampatuan family were among those sentenced to life imprisonment on multiple counts of murder, in a complicated verdict involving 101 defendants.
The trial had been a crucial test of impunity in a country where provincial power is often decided by corruption, intimidation and violence.
The Ampatuan family, a dynasty in the southern province of Maguindanao, had been accused of conspiring to ambush the convoy of a rival clan as it traveled to register its candidate for a gubernatorial election, an attack that spiraled into a bloodbath orchestrated by their own private army.
Among the casualties were the wife and relatives of the rival candidate, lawyers and 32 media workers, who were executed beside a rural road in a volley of gunfire, before being buried with their vehicles in a huge pit dug by an excavator.
A court official read out a long list of names of those of the 101 defendants who were convicted but some were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Some Ampatuan clan members were among those acquitted.
The judge and lawyers decided to read only the last part of the verdict, agreeing that the 700-page decision could take an entire day.
It was one of the world’s single, biggest attacks on journalists and has been the most anticipated verdicts in the Philippines given the notoriety of the Ampatuan family and political ties that went all the way up to then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
It was closely watched as a test of whether democratic institutions in the Philippines could withstand pressure from money and powerful interests.
“Justice prevailed, no one can claim that ‘I am politically powerful and therefore above the law’,” Soledad Mawis, dean of Lyceum of Philippine College of Law, told a television channel.
“That to me is one of the most moving things. You knew these and their alliances connected to the highest places.”
The attack, known as the “Maguindanao Massacre,” was chilling even by Philippine standards, where political assassinations are commonplace in elections for mayors, governors and even congress.
Several witnesses in the case have been killed. The New York-based Human Rights Watch this week said that regardless of the verdict, the dozens of suspects at large must be arrested, to ensure the safety of witnesses and victims’ families.
— Writing by Karen Lema and Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel