Filipino slaying suspect endorses a prez candidate

MANILA, Philippines — The principal suspect in the Philippines’ worst political massacre professed his innocence and endorsed a presidential candidate in a much-criticized press conference held in the capital’s maximum-security jail.

“I know very well that I am not the perpetrator because I was in my town hall then,” Andal Ampatuan Jr., former mayor of a town in southern Maguindanao province, told a group of journalists.

Looking fresh and relaxed in a yellow shirt and arm band, Ampatuan endorsed Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., the opposition candidate who is leading in the polls ahead of the May 10 presidential elections.

Aquino shrugged off the endorsement, saying he did not ask for it. His followers suspected it may have been a plot by the rivals of Aquino, who is leading in popularity surveys, to sully his name by linking it to a crime suspect.

The news conference sparked condemnation and fueled accusations that the current government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is favoring the powerful Ampatuan clan, which is suspected of plotting and carrying out the Nov. 23 massacre of 57 people.

“We condemn this in the strongest terms, this is so callous,” said Harry Roque, lawyer of the slain journalists. “This is another indication that we cannot get justice under this administration.”

The massacre was unprecedented in a country known for election violence and political killings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade. Among the victims 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 reporters.

At the conference, Ampatuan thanked Justice Secretary Alberto Agra’s controversial April 17 decision to clear a brother and a brother-in-law of murder charges and repeated his family’s claim that Muslim separatist guerrillas in their Maguindanao stronghold, where the massacre took place, carried out the killings. The decision not to prosecute the pair sparked street protests and public criticism from government prosecutors.

Monette Salaysay, 55-year-old wife of the slain editor of a provincial tabloid, said Ampatuan was trying to fool the public.

“How can he pretend to be innocent?” Salaysay asked. “If you can open my heart you won’t find anything but pure hatred against these killers.”

Prison officer Lloyd Gonzaga said Ampatuan operated through his lawyer to obtain permission for the conference. Prison authorities rarely allow inmates to hold news conferences.

Witnesses testified in court 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 clan candidate to run in local elections. They were later shot on a nearby hilltop.

Three days after the killings, Ampatuan turned himself in to police. Prosecutors later filed an indictment against his father, clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., and dozens of others in February, in the country’s largest murder case since World War II war crime trials.

Several relatives of the victims today petitioned a local court handling the Ampatuans’ cases to suspend their high-profile trial until a new president has succeeded Arroyo in July. They were not confident of attaining justice while she remained in office, their lawyer Harry Roque said.

The Ampatuans have been Arroyo’s close political allies for years, helping her win 2004 elections. Ampatuan said today the president remained a family friend.

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