July 18, 2015 / 12:24 AM / 5 years ago

Former governor dies while on trial for Philippine journalist massacre

MANILA (Reuters) - The main suspect on trial for the 2009 mass murder of a rival family and journalists in the southern Philippines died late Friday, a lawyer and family members said.

Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. (C) attends the arraignment of his electoral sabotage case at a regional trial court in Pasay, east of Manila, March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Noel Celis/Pool

Andal Ampatuan Sr., the patriarch of a political clan, died at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, where he was comatose after suffering a heart attack on Monday. Some family members were at his bedside, lawyer Ferdinand Topacio told the local press.

The 74-year-old former governor of Maguindanao province on the southern island of Mindanao, who had ruled for a decade, will be buried on Saturday, according to Muslim tradition, Topacio said.

Mayan Sinsuat, an in-law of the Ampatuan patriarch, also confirmed the death.

Ampatuan, his three sons, a sibling, and followers, including police officers, have been on trial from 2010 for the murders of 58 people, including dozens of local journalists, who were buried in shallow graves in a remote village in Maguindanao.

A total of 198 suspects were identified but about 120 had been arrested. One of his sons, Sajid, was freed on bail early this year because the evidence against him was weak.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has described the mass murders as the single deadliest event for journalists in history. Even before the massacre, the CPJ had labeled the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists, second only to Iraq.

Court records showed that on November 2009, the Ampatuan clan intercepted a rival clan at a police checkpoint while on their way to file certificate of candidacy for local elections in Maguindanao province.

They brought 58 people on a nearby hill where they were shot to death and buried them, including their vehicles, in mass graves dug by a backhoe. The arrival of soldiers prevented them from burying the victims and hiding their crime.

There was no immediate statement from his rival, two-time Governor Esmael Mangadadatu, who lost his wife, sister and an aunt in the gruesome murders. Government prosecutors also did not make any statement.

I wish that he was able to seek forgiveness in his death bed,” Reynafe Momay, daughter of a photojournalist, one of 32 press workers murdered.

“He should have apologized to his victims. I pity his family who lost him. I am not happy he died.”

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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