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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - MANILA — The masterminds of the Philippines' worst political massacre were found guilty Thursday of murdering 57 people, a rare conviction of powerful personalities in a country notorious for its culture of impunity.
Officials said the gunmen slaughtered 58 people a decade ago and dumped their bodies in pits as part of a mass killing, though only 57 bodies were recovered.
Leaders of the Ampatuan family, a powerful political dynasty, had been accused of orchestrating the killings in a bid to quash an election challenge from a rival clan.
Some 32 journalists were among those murdered on Nov. 23, 2009, making the massacre also one of the worst ever of media workers.
A Manila court on Thursday found 43 people guilty as principals or accessories to 57 murders led by Andal Ampatuan Jnr, who had been planning to run for provincial governor against the rival.
As principal suspects, Ampatuan and 27 others —including seven of his relatives — were each sentenced to 30 years in jail without parole, the court ruling read.
Fourteen members of the local police and a member of the Ampatuan family's armed militia force were sentenced to between eight and 10 years in prison as accessories.
Two clan leaders and more than 50 others — mostly police officers and alleged members of the Ampatuan militia — were acquitted either on "reasonable doubt" or the prosecution's failure to prove their guilt.
The judge also dismissed the charges over the 58th victim whose body was not found save for his dentures.
"This makes us sad and happy at the same time, because some of the major suspects were convicted," Esmael Mangudadatu, the Ampatuans' rival, told reporters outside the courtroom.
The massacre unfolded when Esmael Mangudadatu — now a member of the House of Representatives —sent his wife and two sisters to file his candidacy for governor of Maguindanao province in an open challenge to the Ampatuans.
Gunmen blocked the convoy, which included the journalists, and herded them to a nearby hill where they were killed in a hail of gunfire and buried in mass graves, along with their vehicles, prosecutors said.
Six of the victims were unrelated motorists who had the misfortune of driving into the checkpoint at the time.
The murders cast a spotlight on the Philippines' notorious culture of impunity, in which powerful and wealthy politicians and businessmen often operate above the law.
The Ampatuans ruled the impoverished southern province and were allowed to build a heavily armed militia by then-president Gloria Arroyo to serve as a buffer against a long-running Muslim insurgency in the region.
With scores of witnesses and mountains of legal paperwork, the case had creaked through a Philippine justice system that is infamous for being overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.
During the case's years of delays, patriarch Andal Ampatuan Snr and seven other defendants died.
Ampatuan Snr had then been governor and wanted to hand over the reins of power to his son and namesake.
International human rights monitors hailed the verdict, but warned victim relatives as well and prosecution witnesses remained at risk with 80 murder suspects still at large.
"The conviction of the principal accused and several others is a critical step towards justice for victims of one of the worst killings of journalists in history," Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement.
"The government must take steps to find and prosecute all those suspected to have taken part in the massacre," he added.
The Ampatuans remain a political force in the south, however.
Ampatuan family members won 25 local seats in May's elections including Sajid Ampatuan, who was among those acquitted Thursday. He did not attend the reading of the verdict.
"Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long," Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said. — AFP
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