Murder Charges Reinstated On Filipino Warlord's Kin

Facing a firestorm of criticism, the government of Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo backed away Wednesday from a decision to exonerate two members of the Ampatuan clan who were charged in the bloody November massacre of 52 people in Maguindanao, the worst political toll in Philippines history.

Justice Secretary Alberto Agra reinstated the cases against Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and his brother-in-law, Mamasapano Mayor Akmad Ampatuan, citing "new evidence" presented by the panel of prosecutors assigned to investigate the case. The Ampatuan clan, headed by Andal Ampatuan Sr, is accused of murdering two sisters and other supporters of political opponent Toto Mangudadatu, as well as 32 journalists and other media workers.

The fact is that there was precious little new evidence. There was plenty of existing evidence. Demands for Agra's resignation snowballed after he issued an earlier resolution clearing the two, reportedly for insufficient evidence. A panel of prosecutors protested the ruling and issued a strongly worded statement in disagreement with the justice secretary. In reversing his decision, Agra said he was giving new weight to the testimonies of two witnesses who claimed to be present when the massacre plan was supposedly finalized on the eve of the massacre.

Many critics in Manila charged that the two were released in the first place out of a political debt that Arroyo owed to the Ampatuan clan. In the 2004 election that returned Arroyo to power in a close race against Fernando Poe Jr, Maguindanao province played a crucial role.

In a taped telephone conversation that became so famous that the words "Hello Garci" were widely used as a ringtone, Arroyo was heard speaking to the election commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano, over several days in late May and mid-June as the votes were being counted. The election was extremely close and Arroyo's eventual victory depended on Mindanao. Arroyo was heard seeking reassurance that everything would come out in her favor. At one stage, Garcillano is heard telling her, "Maguindanao isn't much of a problem."

In two Maguindanao towns, Ampatuan and Datu Piang, Poe received no votes at all, and in Shariff Aguak, he got just five. Despite widespread evidence of fake precincts and padded tallies, the election commission took no notice and certified Arroyo as the winner.

In addition to the exoneration of the two Ampatuan clan members, there have been serious suspicions raised by critics over the special treatment given to Andal Ampatuan Jr., who allegedly led the private army in the murders. Numerous reports said he had been given a relatively luxurious cell. He was allowed to hold a jail press conference in mid-April to "endorse" Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino in the national presidential election to be held on May 10. The press conference, by perhaps the most hated man in the Philippines, was universally regarded as an attempt to wreck Aquino's electoral campaign. Noynoy currently leads the race by a comfortable margin.

The new witnesses, now under the protective custody of the National Bureau of Investigation, reportedly issued affidavits claiming they had heard Andal Ampatuan Sr give orders on the evening of November 22 to kill members of the Mangudadatu family and their supporters who were to file Toto Mangudadatu's certificate of candidacy the following day.

In addition to the elder Ampatuan, 197 members of the warlord's private army, most of them police officers and government malitiamen, have been accused of the murders.

"I am now convinced in so far as Zaldy Ampatuan and Datu Akmad Ampatuan are concerned that there is probable cause to pursue the case against them," Agra was quoted as saying. "I granted the motion for reconsideration based on testimonies of additional witnesses."

Rowena Paraan of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines immediately welcomed the latest decision of Agra.

"The reversal of Agra's decision is a victory for the families of the victims and media groups that rose as one to condemn (his earlier decision)," Paraan said in a text message. "It proves that justice in this country is something not given naturally to the victims but has to be fought for. The road to justice for the Ampatuan massacre victims is long and full of obstacles. We must continue to be vigilant."

Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent