'They own the people': Report on Ampatuans out

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/15 November) — For over two decades, the powerful Ampatuan family of Maguindanao province committed killings and abuses with impunity with the support of high government and security officials, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 96-page report, released a week before the first anniversary of the infamous Ampatuan Massacre which killed 58 people including 32 media workers and blamed on certain members of the Ampatuan family as the masterminds, was based on at least 80 interviews with victims and witnesses as well as sources familiar with the Ampatuan family security structure.

Titled “‘They Own the People’: The Ampatuans, State-Backed Militias, and Killings in the Southern Philippines,” the report likewise “charts the Ampatuans’ rise to power, including their use of violence to expand their control and eliminate threats to the family’s rule,” the Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

It added that a year after the massacre, “the Philippine government has failed to seriously investigate atrocities by powerful ruling families, ban abusive militia forces, or curtail access of officials to military weaponry.”

Hundreds of weapons and huge stockpiles of ammunition apparently coming from government arsenal were recovered in properties owned by the Ampatuans in raids conducted by the military a few days after the massacre.

“The Maguindanao massacre was not an aberration, but the foreseeable consequence of unchecked killings and other serious abuses,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “For two decades the Ampatuans committed atrocities with a ‘private army’ manned by police and soldiers carrying government-supplied weapons.”

Aside from pointing to military and police complicity in how the Ampatuans amassed government weaponry and built a private army with members coming from security forces, the report also blamed former president Gloria M. Arroyo for allegedly condoning the Ampatuans. It said that Arroyo aided their rise to power because she needed their support during elections and for the war against Moro rebel groups.
In 2004, the Ampatuans reportedly rigged the results of the elections in Maguindanao in favor of Arroyo who ran for president against the late actor Fernando Poe Jr., and again in 2007 in favor of her candidates for senator.
“Under the Arroyo administration, militia forces, which have a long history of human rights violations in the Philippines, were greatly strengthened because of the increased sale of military weaponry to local officials and other support. The administration also failed to address impunity for serious rights abuses: in 2002 Arroyo was directly notified of 33 killings allegedly perpetrated by the Ampatuans, but she took no apparent action,” Human Rights Watch said in the statement.
The report further said that the Ampatuans often used “unrestrained brutality, such as the torture and killing by chainsaw of individuals suspected to be involved in a bomb attack against an Ampatuan family member in 2002.”
A testimony by a resident of Shariff Aguak town who was among those interviewed for the report describes his/her alleged encounter with the Ampatuans sometime in 2002:

“[One day, Ampatuan, Sr. had] asked all his friends and relatives to stay in his place [for a gathering]. I went to stay in his place…. After some time I heard people shouting. I was afraid to come out and see what was happening. Then I heard the sound of a chainsaw together with the voices of screaming people…. I heard someone saying, ‘As long as you will not say who your companions were, we will continue to do this to you.’ I also heard, ‘Help, help us.’…. I assumed that they were killed by the chainsaw that night, as I continuously heard the screaming voices and the sound of the chainsaw until such a time that I didn’t hear it anymore.”

The report ended with specific recommendations to the President, Department of Justice, police, military, Congress and other government agencies. It called for, among others, the disbandment of paramilitary groups, investigation of abuses by so-called “private armies” throughout the Philippines and report publicly on the findings, and the investigation of allegations of corruption by the local government officials in Maguindanao,

Human Rights Watch asked President Benigno Aquino III “to fulfill his campaign promises of justice for victims of the Maguindanao massacre and other rights abuses by directing the National Bureau of Investigation to give priority to investigating the alleged abuses of the Ampatuans and their militia. He should carry out his pledge to abolish private armies by banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the Philippines. And he should act to eliminate the spread of military weaponry to armed groups outside the professional national security forces.”

“The Philippine government could have turned the national tragedy of the Maguindanao massacre into a campaign to eliminate private armies and bring all those responsible for their abuses to justice,” Ross said. “The Philippine people – and the country’s reputation – will continue to suffer so long as powerful ruling families are calling the shots.” (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)