MANILA — Human Rights watch urged the Philippines on Wednesday to arrest 80 suspects in the Maguindanao massacre who remain at large, putting the victims' families "at risk."
Ahead of the promulgation on Thursday, those who have eluded arrest include 14 members of the Ampatuan clan and 50 soldiers and policemen. Two Ampatuan scions, Zaldy and Andal Jr, are detained.
"The families of Maguindanao victims and witnesses will be at risk so long as suspects remain free. Regardless of the verdicts in the case, Philippine authorities need to apprehend the several dozen suspects still at large," HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
On Nov. 23, 2009, the "private army" of the Ampatuans allegedly blocked a mostly female convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, who were on their way to register his candidacy for governor. Fifty-eight people were killed including 32 journalists.
A special court is expected to hand down verdicts for 101 defendants in custody. The trial was earlier marred by allegations of bribery, defense delays, the murder of several witnesses and fear that the still powerful accused could be acquitted.
A guilty verdict "will be a strong signal to human rights abusers that they can't always get away with murder," HRW researcher Carlos Conde earlier said.
"A not guilty verdict would be catastrophic for the cause of human rights and justice," he said, adding acquittal would signal to warlords "that it's business as usual, that they can continue using violence, intimidation and corruption to rule their communities," he added.
The Maguindanao slaughter exposed how then president Gloria Arroyo tolerated the Ampatuans' heavily-armed militia as a buffer against Muslim rebels in the south, home to the Catholic nation's large Islamic minority.
Even routine court cases can take years to make it through the Philippine justice system, which is notoriously overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.
"We are hoping and praying that we will get a fair judgement," said Mary Grace Morales, whose sister and husband were among 32 journalists killed.
"They (Ampatuans) have power... they have money," she told Agence France-Presse. "They can pay many lawyers to handle their cases."
The Ampatuans won 25 local seats in May's elections including Sajid Ampatuan, a defendant in the massacre case who was released on bail.
The 101 defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, face up to 30 years in prison without parole if convicted of even one of the 58 murders, lawyers representing many of the victims' families said.
— With a report from Agence France-Presse