Relatives of journalists killed in the Philippines’ worst election massacre on Wednesday asked Southeast Asia’s nascent human rights body to ensure that suspects - including a powerful clan allied with the president - did not escape justice.
Fiftyseven people, including at least 30 journalists and their staff, were on their way to register a gubernatorial candidate on November 23 when they were stopped by police, soldiers and militiamen and gunned down allegedly on orders of a rival clan.
Andal Ampatuan Jr., a town mayor in southern Maguindanao province where his family held sway for years, has been charged with multiple murder and has denied involvement. His father, former governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., and some 160 others also are facing murder and rebellion charges.
The relatives of 14 of the journalists filed a 23-page petition, the first of its kind, at the newly formed Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, asking the body to keep the Philippines accountable to the victims.
Specifically, they sought an “urgent pronouncement” from the Jakarta, Indonesia-based commission “calling on the Philippine state to abide with its obligations under international law and ensure the prosecution and conviction of the perpetrators of the massacre as well as the provision of adequate reparations, including compensation and satisfaction, to the victims and their heirs.”
The commission was unveiled in October during a summit of ASEAN, which groups the Philippines with Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand pushed for the commission’s creation mainly to deal with military-ruled Myanmar, and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last July it would focus on promotion rather than protection of human rights. ASEAN members are sensitive to outside intervention in domestic affairs.
Human rights lawyer Harry Roque, who represents the petitioners, said the killings were attributable under international law to the Philippine government under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, because the suspects were state agents - police, soldiers and local officials - and because senior government and military officials failed to prevent the massacre.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, the most senior member of Arroyo’s Cabinet, said Ms. Arroyo and other officials were unaware of the alleged plans of the Ampatuans to kill their rivals.
Arroyo had made political alliances with the Ampatuans and their rivals, the Mangudadatus, but was believed particularly indebted to the Ampatuans who delivered crucial votes for her in the 2004 election. Ms. Arroyo’s administration party expelled the Ampatuans shortly after the massacre.
The petition said there were “well-founded fears that the Philippine state will be under very heavy pressure from the Ampatuans to whitewash the investigation or to cover up crucial evidence.”