Ampatuan clan jostling for power again

Posted at 11/24/2012 2:12 AM | Updated as of 11/24/2012 2:25 AM

MANILA - Dozens of members of a clan whose leaders are on trial for the Philippines' worst political massacre are candidates in the 2013 elections, some for the president's party, media and rights groups said Friday.

The revelations sparked outrage on the three-year anniversary of the massacre, in which 58 people died, with critics saying the Ampatuan family's enduring political influence underlined the country's "culture of impunity".

"That some clan members are running under the banner of President (Benigno) Aquino's party is a serious cause for concern because it imparts a damaging message that impunity is alive and well," Human Rights Watch's Carlos Conde told AFP.

Leaders of the clan, then allied to Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, are accused of carrying out the massacre to stop a local rival from filing his candidacy for Maguindanao province governor in 2010 elections.

Andal Ampatuan Snr, the patriarch and then governor of the province, plus four of his sons, are on trial, accused of planning or participating in the massacre. They deny the charges.

Eighty-two people in total are on trial, many of whom were allegedly members of the Ampatuans' private army that helped to consolidate the family's almost complete control of the province over the previous decade.

The victims included 32 media workers who were travelling in a convoy to report on the opposition candidate's attempt to file election papers. The Ampatuans and their gunmen allegedly stopped the convoy and shot everyone dead.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Arroyo was forced to cut political ties with the family, and its power base in Maguindanao, a Muslim-populated province plagued by insurrection and other violence, appeared to have been diminished.

But 72 members of the clan are running again as candidates in next year's elections, including nine for Aquino's Liberal Party, said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

They are representing mostly local level positions in Maguindanao, said a joint statement by the union and six other Philippine media organisations that expressed deep anger.

"Even as fear of reprisals continue to haunt witnesses and plaintiffs in the case, the government of Mr. Aquino and other major political parties in the country have embraced the Ampatuan clan," the groups said.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper also wrote in an editorial Friday: "How can the political parties not know that support for Ampatuan candidates feeds the very impunity that led to the massacre?"

In the Philippines, powerful politicians and other members of the elite classes often commit crimes without any fear of punishment. Aquino has vowed to tackle this culture.

Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, confirmed the ruling Liberal party had recruited some Ampatuans, but defended the move saying they did not share the same "brand of politics" as the accused. He did not say who had been recruited.

The main opposition United Nationalist Alliance, led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, also confirmed some Ampatuans were running in its coalition but said they had not been implicated in the massacre.

"What's the big fuss?" coalition spokesman Jose Bautista said to AFP.

"Should each and every Ampatuan be penalised for the murders?"

Meanwhile, the trial drags on with no signs of an end. Lawyers have said it could take years, or even decades, for the proceedings to conclude amid the Philippines' notoriously overwhelmed justice system.

Three witnesses for the prosecution have been killed over the past three years.