Philippines vows justice 5 years after massacre

Philippines vows justice 5 years after massacre
Relatives and supporters of victims of the infamous massacre visit the site where 58 people were killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province, in southern island of Mindanao on November 21, 2014, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the worst political massacre of the country.

AMPATUAN, Philippines - Top officials vowed on Sunday to deliver justice as the Philippines marked the fifth anniversary of a political massacre that killed 58 with no one yet convicted and several would-be witnesses murdered.

Under a burning sun hundreds of relatives and supporters of the victims, guarded by scores of military men, congregated on a hillside in the town of Ampatuan on the southern island of Mindanao where the bodies were dumped on November 23, 2009.

Relatives released white balloons, lit candles and said prayers as they echoed calls to convict members and followers of the powerful Ampatuan political clan, some of whom are now on trial for the massacre.

In Manila presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma described the killings in Maguindanao province -- the country's worst-ever political massacre -- as "a litmus test of the Philippine justice system".

The 58 victims, including 32 journalists, were riding in a convoy in the strife-torn province when they were stopped, rounded up, shot dead and buried on the hillside.

The convoy was on its way to file the election candidacy of a local rival of the Ampatuan clan when it was allegedly waylaid by the family's private militia led by Andal Ampatuan Jnr, son of local strongman Andal Ampatuan Snr.

President Benigno Aquino "is filled with determination that his administration will complete the unfinished work of achieving justice", his spokesman said.

The president had challenged the Justice Department to convict "at least the principal accused" before he steps down in 2016, Coloma said.

Reforms were being undertaken to speed up legal processes, Coloma added, stressing "our people will not accept the slow turning of the wheel of justice".

But the trial of Ampatuan Snr and Jnr, seven other clan members and scores of their alleged followers -- 111 in total -- has dragged on for years under a creaking justice system which lets lawyers resort to numerous delaying tactics.

Meanwhile, 79 suspects, including nine Ampatuans, remain at large while human rights groups and victims' relatives say witnesses are being killed or intimidated to try to sabotage the case.

One potential witness was killed last Tuesday, bringing to four the number of would-be witnesses to have been murdered.

At the ceremonies in Ampatuan, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima joined the relatives of the dead in calling for speedier proceedings.

Families of those who died spoke of how they were losing their faith in the system as others wept.

Amnesty International said authorities were running out of time to ensure their response to the massacre did not become a mockery of justice.

"Justice delayed is justice denied. Five years after the Maguindanao massacre, the cases are still inching through the Philippine court system and not a single person has been held to account," said Hazel Galang-Folli, the group's Philippines researcher, in a statement.

The International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines accused the government of failing to protect media workers, citing a continued climate of fear in the country.

De Lima conceded there were obstacles such as 300 witnesses who were due to testify for the defence but she insisted the prosecution's case was still stronger.

She also acknowledged the killings of witnesses and potential witnesses.

But de Lima said she would keeping helping potential witnesses, adding "we will continue our fight for rights and justice".

"Justice is slow but it still moves," she told the relatives.

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