by Michaela P. del Callar
A prominent human rights watchdog yesterday blamed what it called a two-decade reign of terror of the Ampatuan warlord clan on former President Arroyo’s political patronage of the Ampatuans, saying this allowed them to amass great wealth and unchecked power, strengthen various militia forces, increase the sale of military weaponry and ensure impunity for rights abuses in Maguindanao.
The clan was charged over the country’s worst political massacre that killed dozens of other people during a two-decade reign of terror, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published yesterday.
The New York-based group, in its 96-page report released ahead of the first anniversary of the gruesome Maguindanao massacre, entitled “They Own the People,” denounced the culture of impunity in the province.
HRW said it had spoken to witnesses, including ex-members of the Ampatuan militia, about the murders of at least 56 other people stretching back to 2001, many of them tortured and killed with chainsaws.
The report said Ampatuan Sr., an ex-leader of a paramilitary force trained by the state to fight Muslim rebels, and his relatives engaged in targeted killings, abductions, torture, and sexual assault in and around Maguindanao.
These were aimed at expanding the clan’s political power and to avenge perceived wrongs done on family members.
The victims were mostly unarmed civilians and included women and children, according to HRW, which alleged some of the women were raped.
People or families perceived to be aligned with militant Muslim groups, friends and relatives of rivals, one weapons vendor, and a judge were slain, it said.
Some of the killings alleged in the report were committed in retribution for a 2002 Christmas eve bombing that killed one of Andal Snr’s sons, Saudi Ampatuan, and 17 other people.
Suspects and their relatives were detained, bound, and personally cut up with chainsaws by senior Ampatuan family members, it said.
HRW alleged Arroyo ignored the allegations against the Ampatuans as she used them to contain Muslim rebels and deliver her votes from Maguindanao in national elections.
It also called on the new government of President Aquino to bring all the perpetrators to justice, particularly those belonging to the Ampatuan clan, who are suspected of masterminding the gruesome murder of 57 people, mostly women and journalists, in Maguindanao province in Nov. 23, 2009.
HRW pointed out that the former Arroyo administration, in exchange for political support from the Ampatuans, “tacitly permitted if not actually facilitated” the atrocities and violations committed by the clan in her eight years in office.
HRW alleged Arroyo of ignoring the allegations against the Ampatuans as she used them to contain Muslim rebels and secure votes from Maguindanao in national elections.
“President Arroyo was directly notified of Ampatuan abuses, yet failed to act,” HRW said.
Under the Arroyo administration, militia forces under the control of the Ampatuans grew considerably, it added.
It also blamed the lack of oversight and transparency to regulate the recruitment, payment, supervision, training, and structure of paramilitary forces.
“The laws do not expressly limit the number of CVOs or Police Auxiliary Unit members a local government can recruit. Even those laws that do exist have not been applied in Maguindanao,” it said.
The main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jr., has been detained at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters in Manila and faces multiple charges of murder. Several other Ampatuans were arrested with the imposition of martial law by Arroyo last year.
Domestic and international anger poured over the massacre, which involved mutilation of the women victims and constituted the single biggest death toll of journalists ever in a single incident anywhere in the world.
On Nov. 23, 2009 around 100 armed men of the Amputuan milita, including officials of the local police force, intercepted a convoy of female relatives of the Ampatuan’s political rival, Esmail “Toto” Mangudadatu, and their lawyers, who were on their way to file papers for Mangudadatu’s candidacy for the governorship of Maguindanao province.
The convoy was accompanied by about 30 journalists. According to a police witness, the members of the convoy were lined up at the site and shot, beginning with the Mangudadatu women.
Arroyo ignored the many allegations of murder and torture against the Ampatuan family for the final eight years it was in complete control of southern Maguindanao province, according to the report.
“For two decades the Ampatuans committed atrocities with a ‘private army’ manned by police and soldiers carrying government-supplied weapons,” said James Ross, HRW’s legal and policy director.
“The Maguindanao massacre was not an aberration, but the foreseeable consequence of unchecked killings and other serious abuses,” he added.
Clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr, his son and namesake, and four other relatives have been charged with murder for the November 23 massacre of the 57 people, 32 of whom were journalists.
The Ampatuans were alleged to have organized for their militia to carry out the massacre to stop a political rival from challenging Andal Ampatuan Jnr for the post of Maguindanao governor in this year’s national elections.
It said 12 community leaders from Maguindanao wrote to Arroyo in 2002 “alleging that the Ampatuans, their allies, and their paramilitary forces were responsible for at least 33 killings and a number of other abuses”.
The Ampatuans were members of Arroyo’s then ruling coalition party from 2001 to 2009, and the government funded and armed its private militia of 2,000-5,000 men.
Arroyo was forced to end her alliance with the Ampatuans amid local and international outrage over last year’s massacre.
Arroyo, elected to the House of Representatives in May after more than nine years as president, had no immediate reaction to the allegations.
Arroyo spokeswoman Elena Bautista said she would not comment on the report.
Arroyo’s congressional office was unmanned yesterday due to a holiday. Her staff said on Monday the legislator had no immediate comment.
While many allegations against the Ampatuans have been made public previously, HRW said its report was based on interviews with 80 people who would have been too afraid to speak if the clan was still in power.
Even so, one of the people who did speak with HRW and had planned to testify against the Ampatuans has since been murdered, illustrating what the New York-based group said was the family’s enduring threat.
The Ampatuans have repeatedly denied being involved in the massacre. Their trials are expected to take years to complete. (11/17/2010) AFP