MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine prosecutors filed formal murder charges on Tuesday against a member of a powerful political family for the massacre of 57 people in a suspected clan feud that has stoked tensions ahead of elections next year.
Andal Ampatuan Jr, a local mayor in Maguindandao province, and several as yet unidentified suspects will face 25 counts of murder before a regional trial court in Cotabato City on the southern island of Mindanao.
They were accused of conspiracy in the execution of the wife, sisters and relatives of a rival politician, two lawyers, dozens of journalists and other civilians in Ampatuan town on November 23, Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera told reporters.
The victims were on their way to an election office for the filing of nomination papers for a member of the Mangudadatu family when about 100-armed men attacked their convoy.
Fifty seven people, including journalists, were shot and hacked to death and most of them buried in three shallow graves on a hillside off the highway.
“As we continue to gather evidence, we’re seeing more names and more suspects, including members of the Ampatuan family,” Devanadera told reporters.
“Some of them pulled the triggers, some of them were of the group and we believed more than a hundred participated.”
She said state prosecutors had asked the court to deny the suspect bail, adding the crime was serious and had shocked not only the country but the international community.
Ampatuan remains under heavy guard at the main office of the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila.
The Ampatuans have denied any role in the killing, blaming rogue Muslim rebels for the carnage, and have hired 40 lawyers. They also staged a rally at the weekend to show they have the support of the people.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the Ampatuans asked the Supreme Court to issue an order preventing security forces from making arrests without due process and warrants.
Police have found two witnesses who identified six people, including four members of the Ampatuan family, as among those involved in the abduction and executions, Jesus Verzosa, the national police chief, told reporters.
Verzosa said the witnesses were among 18 members of a local police unit manning a checkpoint where the massacre victims were initially stopped.
“We’ve given them and their families protection because they were warned not to say anything about the incident,” Verzosa said, adding the two police officers did not take part in the abduction and murders but were afraid to stop the Ampatuans.
Two other police officers and the commander of a civilian militia force under the control of the Ampatuans were also named as suspects.
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Sanjeev Miglani