Philippine police seek 161 suspects in election massacre; Congress debates martial law

By Teresa Cerojano, AP
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Philippine police seek 161 suspects in massacre

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine police on Wednesday named 161 suspects in the massacre of 57 people last month, including government militiamen led by members of a powerful clan facing murder and rebellion charges.

Witnesses have identified Andal Ampatuan Jr., a scion of the clan, leading the group of militiamen who stopped his rival’s convoy that included 30 journalists and their staff on Nov. 23 in the southern province of Maguindanao, national police chief Jesus Verzosa told reporters.

He said witnesses told investigators Ampatuan himself shot some of the victims in Ampatuan township — named after his family that has ruled the impoverished province unopposed for years. The bodies troops found hours later bore bullet wounds in the mouth and chest fired from close range, Verzosa said.

Police also said the bodies of some of the 21 women were mutilated, including their sexual organs. Authorities earlier said at least five women may have been raped.

Police said the militiamen, all but two at large, were identified by witnesses Tuesday. Their names will be submitted to prosecutors to be included in the charge sheet and court warrants of arrest.

The mug shots of about 100 newly identified suspects were displayed at the national police headquarters in Manila. Of 161 suspects identified by authorities, 100 are militiamen and the remainder are members of the Ampatuan clan or are police, army and local officials working for the Ampatuans. About 30 of them have been arrested.

Ampatuan turned himself in three days after the Nov. 23 killings and denied involvement. His father, the family patriarch, and other relatives have been arrested on separate charges of rebellion.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last week declared martial law in Maguindanao, allowing government forces to arrest other members of the clan without waiting for court warrants and order some 2,400 loyalists to surrender their weapons.

Security forces have recovered dozens of weapons and about half a million ammunition rounds in and near properties of the clan. Officers and soldiers returned to the warehouse they raided earlier and found more ammunition hidden in the concrete wall, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Samson.

Air force planes and helicopters dropped thousands of leaflets urging the Ampatuan followers to give up or face an assault.

“We have to resolve this case peacefully,” Verzosa said. “We are urging them to surrender and then the normal processes of the law and prosecution should be held.”

The head of the independent Commission on Human Rights, Leila de Lima, said her agency would also investigate allegations contained in a letter from anonymous citizens blaming the Ampatuans for at least 200 other killings in the area in the past. De Lima cautioned that the allegations had not been validated and did not provide details.

She said her office had asked the elder Ampatuan to comment on the allegations but he never responded.

Aside from murder charges, prosecutors also drew up a case of rebellion against the Ampatuans and their supporters for allegedly fomenting armed resistance to prevent their arrests — a justification for the martial law proclamation.

Some lawmakers and legal scholars worried that the rebellion charges, a political rather than a criminal offense, might dilute the murder case. Those convicted of rebellion are eligible for amnesty.

Human rights lawyers, a former Senate president and three other groups asked the Supreme Court to declare the martial law proclamation unconstitutional, arguing the law and order breakdown in Maguindanao did not amount to a rebellion.

The court ordered the government to comment on the petition by Monday. It also granted the government’s request to transfer the trial from Maguindanao to Manila, citing concern for the security of witnesses.

Arroyo’s proclamation is the first use of military rule in the Philippines since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared it nationwide more than 30 years ago.

Congress will convene later Wednesday for a marathon all-night session to discuss the measure and is expected to approve it. Arroyo’s allies dominate the lower house.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Oliver Teves and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.

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