Philippines to charge massacre suspects with rebellion as civil groups question martial law

By Pat Roque, AP
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philippine massacre suspects face rebellion raps

SHARIFF AGUAK, Philippines — Prosecutors drew up additional charges of rebellion Monday against members of a powerful southern clan suspected in the Philippines’ worst political massacre, as troops uncovered more hidden weapons.

Civil rights groups were set to challenge at the Supreme Court President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s declaration of martial law in Maguindanao province, which authorized thousands of troops to make arrests without court warrants and crack down on the Ampatuan clan and its private army.

Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan’s patriarch and former governor who has ruled unopposed for years, has been arrested with at least six other family members and about 60 followers on suspicion of planning and carrying out the Nov. 23 killing of 57 people — including 30 journalists and their staff — traveling in a convoy of a political rival. The Ampatuans have denied involvement.

Ampatuan’s son, Andal Ampatuan Jr., who turned himself in last month, is the only one charged with multiple counts of murder. Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said prosecutors would file murder charges against the other Ampatuans who were arrested over the weekend, as well as additional charges of rebellion for allegedly organizing armed resistance.

Thirty-nine firearms and crates of ammunition were dug up Sunday at a farm believed owned by the Ampatuans near the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak, army Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan said. Other stockpiles, including mortar shells, were retrieved last week outside the Ampatuans’ compound. Officials said the weapons, some stamped with Defense Department markings, were enough to arm a battalion.

Army troops and police said they were pursuing about 4,000 armed followers of the Ampatuans, some reportedly massing in eight Maguindanao towns. Security forces sealed off Maguindanao’s exit points and mounted checkpoints, police Director Andres Caro said.

Pangilinan told reporters the gunmen were capable of carrying out bombings, arson attacks and abductions.

The Ampatuans are notorious for running a large private army, many of them pro-government militia who are meant to be an auxiliary force to the military and police in battling insurgents and bandits.

The clan helped Arroyo win crucial votes from Maguindanao during 2004 elections, but the administration’s party expelled them after the massacre.

Citing a breakdown in law and order and massing up of Ampatuan’s supporters, Arroyo on late Friday imposed martial law in Maguindanao — the first use of military rule in the Philippines since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared it nationwide more than 30 years ago.

Pro-democracy advocates accused her of overreacting, and a group of human rights lawyers argues that there are insufficient grounds for martial law and plan to challenge it in the Supreme Court later Monday.

An Ampatuan ally, Rep. Didagen Dilangalen, filed a separate motion against martial law.

Arroyo sent a report on her martial law declaration to Congress, which will convene Tuesday to approve or reject it. Her allies dominate the lower house.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila contributed to this report.

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