Would-be witness in Philippine massacre murdered

MANILA - A potential witness in the trial over the Philippines' worst political massacre has been killed, police said Wednesday as the government struggled to secure justice for the 2009 murder of 58 people.

Tuesday's attack brings to four the number of would-be witnesses in the ongoing trial to be killed, with no one yet convicted nearly five years on.

Dennis Sakal died while another potential witness Sukarno Saudagal was wounded in the attack by unknown gunmen in the southern province of Maguindanao, where the massacre took place on November 23, 2009, said provincial police chief Rodelio Jocson.

"I was officially informed that the two were to take the stand," Senior Superintendent Jocson told AFP by telephone. He said he was unaware of what they planned to say.

Apart from the three other potential witnesses murdered earlier, three relatives of persons who had planned to testify at the trial in Manila have also been killed, prosecutors say.

The 2009 massacre was allegedly orchestrated by the Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao on Mindanao island in a bid to stop a local rival from challenging one of its members for the post of governor.

The clan's candidate, Andal Ampatuan junior, allegedly led his family's private army in stopping a convoy carrying his foe's wife, relatives, lawyers and a group of more than 30 journalists, and then gunning them down.

A total of 111 out of 195 suspects are on trial, including the principal suspects Andal junior, brother Zaldy Ampatuan and their father and clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan senior.

However, court officials said the other suspects remain at large and prosecutors do not expect the court to hand down verdicts until next year at the earliest.

Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines both condemned the latest ambush.

"The government has to step up and secure people involved in this trial, which has taken too long already," union director Jose Jaime Espina told AFP.

"It does not help the morale of the other witnesses," Valte acknowledged.

The Ampatuans, who deny the murder charges, had ruled Maguindanao for about a decade under the patronage of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who had used the clan's militias as a buffer against Muslim separatist rebels.

Despite the detention of top clan leaders, wives and other relatives of the key defendants were elected to major local posts across Maguindanao last year, attesting to the clan's enduring influence.