Fearful wait for justice a decade after Philippine massacre

Manila, Nov 21 (AFP/APP): A decade after 58 people were killed in the Philippines’ worst political massacre, none of the alleged masterminds have been convicted yet, leaving families fearful that justice may never come.

Though a verdict is now due next month over the bloodshed that drew international outrage, there is no guarantee of a conviction and the painfully slow-moving trial could still be derailed by corruption or even violence.

“We are afraid for the life of the prosecutor or even our judge,” said Mary Grace Morales, whose sister and husband were among 32 journalists killed in the attack, making it one of world’s deadliest on media workers.

In the years since leaders of the Ampatuan political dynasty were accused of masterminding the November 23, 2009 massacre, at least four witnesses have been killed before they could testify and death threats have been common.

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Ampatuan family leaders, who ruled the impoverished southern province of Maguindanao, are charged with organising the mass killing in a bid to quash an election challenge from a rival clan.

“We are just praying that nothing happens in the next month,” added Morales, referring to the verdict that the Supreme Court ordered be delivered by December 20 for some 100 defendants.

The trial has moved at a glacial pace, with allegations of bribery and delay tactics against the dynasty’s lawyers, which previously included Salvador Panelo, now President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman.

However, even routine cases can take years to make it through the Philippine court system, which is notoriously overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.

Many people with a vested interest in halting the case remain free. Of the nearly 200 defendants charged, about 80 are still at large, including 14 Ampatuans.

“These are dangerous people. They have been involved in many killings,” Nena Santos, a lawyer who represents 38 of the victims’ families, said referring to the suspects.

Santos said she believes the prosecution will secure convictions of at least the main players, but added “of course the final judgment depends on the judge”.

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