By Jim Gomez Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine court has dismissed rebellion charges against a powerful clan leader and dozens of his followers but they remain in custody for their alleged role in the election-related massacre of 57 people, officials said today.
The Nov. 23 slaughter was unprecedented even in a country known for election violence and political killings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the last 10 years. Only the war crime trials of World War II Japanese commanders in the Philippines involved higher numbers of victims, said former Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera.
Among the dead were more than 30 journalists and their staff — the deadliest known attack on media workers in the world. The killings elevated the Philippines to the top of a list of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
Prosecutors charged Andal Ampatuan Sr., his four sons and followers with rebellion for allegedly plotting to stage an armed uprising after the government began to crack down on them when they were linked to the massacre.
They were separately charged with multiple murders and so are not eligible for bail.
Among the massacre victims were supporters and relatives of the Ampatuans’ political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, who is running for governor of predominantly Muslim Maguindanao. They were headed to an election office to file Mangudadatu’s candidacy papers when their convoy was stopped at gunpoint. They were later found shot to death on a nearby hilltop, along with the journalists covering the event.
Judge Vivencio Baclig cleared the Ampatuans and their followers of rebellion charges for lack of evidence.
Pictures of pro-Ampatuan crowds submitted by prosecutors “hardly portrays a menacing and violent armed mob,” Baclig said, adding no one in the group was armed.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared martial law for a week in Maguindanao to allow troops to deal with what military and police officials told the public then was an attempted rebellion by pro-Ampatuan forces shortly after the massacre.
Presidential spokesman Gary Olivar said Arroyo was standing by her decision to declare martial law, saying, “There was credible evidence of rebellion.” He added Arroyo’s declaration allowed authorities to arrest suspects rapidly, collect evidence and restore normal government operations.
Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said he will appeal Baclig’s decision.
The Ampatuans have denied the charges, and most of their followers have fled a crackdown in Maguindanao, about 560 miles south of Manila.
Still, thousands of militiamen loyal to the Ampatuan clan are in hiding and considered a security threat in Maguindanao. They are being pursued by government troops.