Attorneys for the suspects in what is known as the Maguindanao massacre of political rivals in the southern Philippines have acknowledged that journalists were among those killed.
In court Thursday, the attorney for 14 of the victims’ families read the names on a list of journalists who were in a convoy when it was attacked in November 2009. Prosecutors charge that scores of armed men, led by members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, abducted and killed 58 people in the convoy, including the wife and sister of a political rival.
The list of journalists was found in the purse of one of those who died.
The attorney, Harry Roque, says the reading of the list was a victory, since the defense lawyers have accepted it as part of the evidence and did not challenge it.
“For the first time we have confirmation that 32 journalists joined that convoy and that therefore the 32 corpses identified by the families of those families must belong to those who joined the coverage,” said Roque.
The journalists were accompanying supporters and the wife of the current governor of Maguindanao province, Esmael Mangudadatu, as they traveled to file his candidacy papers for last year’s election.
“And I’m very happy of course with some of these media victims that there is a recognition now without a doubt and beyond a reasonable doubt that these journalists died in their duty to cover what is a newsworthy event,” Roque added.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has been very vocal about the massacre and critical of what it calls impunity in the killings of journalists in the Philippines.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. is accused of being the mastermind behind the massacre. He has pleaded not guilty. Five other members of his family including his father, who was governer of Maguindanao at the time, face related charges. The government has said 196 people were involved in the massacre, but more than half of them have not yet been charged.
In other developments Thursday, the judge trying the case declined to arraign any of the suspects, prompting anger from some relatives of victims. The judge delayed the arraignment to consider a motion from the defense.
Also, prosecutors and victims’ families demanded that the prison where the suspects are being held allow them in to verify that the Ampatuans are indeed jailed and are not receiving special treatment. The prison warden denied the request.
Philippine prisons are known of corruption, which allows prisoners to buy special privileges, and lax enforcement. There have been numerous reports in recent years of mass breakouts, and of some prisoners being allowed special treatment, such as extended visits to their homes. In one recent case, the former governor of Batangas province, a convicted killer, was allowed out of prison without official permission.