MANILA – A politician accused of helping plan the country's worst political massacre pleaded not guilty yesterday to organizing the murder of at least 57 victims, a court official said.
Zaldy Ampatuan, allegedly a key plotter of the 2009 attack in the country's south, entered a plea after the court struck down months of maneuvers challenging the legality of his arrest, said court officer May Datuon.
"He has exhausted all the remedies," Datuon said.
The Ampatuan clan allegedly carried out the massacre in November 2009 to keep a rival candidate from challenging one of their members in the 2010 local elections.
At the time Zaldy Ampatuan was governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a self-rule area where then-president Gloria Arroyo armed hundreds of the clan's supporters to help the military fight Islamic guerrillas.
The family patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., and his son and namesake, Andal Ampatuan Jr., are also among 75 suspects on trial.
The two are accused of plotting the murders along with Zaldy Ampatuan and other clan members, the court said.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. allegedly led a group of about 100 gunmen in stopping a convoy of cars carrying relatives of the rival candidate, their lawyers and journalists, and then shooting them dead in a remote area.
The massacre, in which the victims were buried in mass graves using an excavator owned by the provincial government, shocked the nation.
It forced Arroyo to break ties with the clan and order the arrest of its leaders.
State prosecutors ruled earlier this year that there were 58 massacre victims, with extra dentures found at the mass graves identified to be those of a missing journalist.
However Zaldy Ampatuan was initially only charged with the murders of 57 victims, which was the official toll when he was indicted.
The police said 103 people have been arrested over the massacre, including the clan patriarch. However more than 90 other suspects remain at large, raising fears the clan may still intimidate potential witnesses.
The trial is seen as a test of whether the Philippines can really abolish the "culture of impunity" surrounding powerful figures.
Government lawyers and human rights advocates warn that the trial could take years due to delaying tactics by some of the wealthy defendants and the overburdened legal system.*AFP
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