Murder trials began in the Philippines Wednesday for individuals charged in connection with the November 2009 massacre [CSM backgrounder; JURIST news archive] that left 57 dead. Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court is conducting the trial in a high-security Manila prison [ABC report] in response to fears of witnesses being threatened. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] has urged Philippine President Benigno Aquino [BBC profile] to investigate the murders [news release] of five witnesses who had previously agreed to testify at the trial. According to HRW, only 19 of 195 individuals will be put on trial for the murders, while 127 suspects still have not been captured [news release], increasing the possibility of witness intimidation. The massacre case, which many people believe will continue for years, has accumulated nearly 500 witnesses [CNN report].
In April, 11 Philippines policemen and militia members pleaded not guilty to murder charges for their involvement in the massacre, only one month after a Quezon City court dismissed rebellion charges against 24 people [JURIST reports], including Andal Ampatuan Sr., the leader of a Muslim clan in the Philippines' semi-autonomous southern province of Maguindanao, and four of his family members. The Philippines Department of Justice [official website] had implicated Ampatuan and several of his followers in the November slayings [press release] of 57 campaign workers, journalists and supporters of family political rival Esmael Mangudadatu. The Ampatuans and several of their followers are alleged to have intercepted Mangudadatu's convoy en route to declare his candidacy for governor at a regional election office, ultimately forcing his convoy to a remote hilltop where the Ampatuans' group killed and buried them.