On December 19, following a 10-year battle for justice, members of a powerful political clan in the Philippines were found guilty of a massacre that left 58 people dead in the country’s worst case of election violence.
A court in Quezon City gave verdicts for around 200 defendants. Among them was Andal Ampatuan Jr, a scion of a family from the Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines that had ruled the region unopposed for years, and loyal allies to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in office at the time of the massacre.
On November 23, 2009 — just a few months shy of a national election — around a dozen family members of the then-vice mayor of Buluan province, Esmael Mangudadatu, along with 32 journalists and a group of supporters were traveling in a multi-vehicle convoy to the provincial capital to file Mangudadatu’s candidacy papers to run for governor of the province.
Mangudadatu was popular and looked likely to beat his opponent, Ampatuan.
As tensions rose, Mangudadatu began receiving death threats, and so sought a military escort to accompany them to the capital. But on the day, none arrived.
Instead, he decided to stay at the compound and sent his pregnant wife, Genalyn, and other female relatives, believing that they would not be hurt because they were women. For added protection, he invited journalists, too.
Before they left, one of the journalists reached out to Major General Alfrado Cayton, who assured them that their safety was guaranteed, and so the convoy left around 9 a.m. and began the hour-long journey through the banana plantations, dwarfed by rolling hills.
Around 45 minutes later, one of the journalists in the convoy sent a message to a colleague telling them they’d been stopped at a police checkpoint. For the next half an hour the colleague tried calling for more information, but no one answered.
According to witnesses, once the cars were stopped at the checkpoint, around 100 armed men, led by Andal Ampatuan Jr., appeared from the long grass on either side of the road, commandeered the vehicles and drove them along a dirt road deep into the hillside.
There, everyone, including Mangudadatu’s wife, his sisters, and all 32 journalists were shot dead. Then, using an excavator, stamped with “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan,” they buried the bodies in a mass grave.
The gunmen killed 58 people: 43 men and 15 women. Some victims were shot in the genital area. Others were mutilated. Many of the women were raped.
Andal Ampatuan Jr, his father, and several other members of the Ampatuan clan were among those charged with the killings.
So, too, were more than 60 members of the National Police Force, the Armed Forces, or government-subsidized paramilitary groups. Only 19 have so far been convicted.
Following the attack, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said: “It is a fact that an army intelligence unit witnessed the convoy being stopped and then taken to the killing grounds.”
Altogether, 80 suspects are still evading authorities. Nine of those yet to be arrested are part of the Ampatuan family, and more shockingly, some of them have still run for political office in Maguindanao in recent years.
Jhan Chiene Maravilla, whose father Bart Marabilla, a radio reporter in the convoy, was killed during the attack, told the Guardian that she welcomed the sentencing, but that some families remain afraid for their lives because many people were acquitted.
“Some of them are now free. What happens to our families? They might try to retaliate. We can’t be sure. They killed 58 people. They can kill us one by one. We know their character. They really need to stay in jail,” she said.
Local media report that at least four prosecution witnesses have been murdered or died under mysterious circumstances since the trial began.
Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan patriarch and the alleged mastermind of the attack, died in 2015.
Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, the CEO of the news outlet Rappler, told TIME the ruling sends an important message, especially given the current political climate in the Philippines.
“Remember, this was a gruesome mass murder committed by police at the order of politicians,” Ressa said “I couldn’t help but see this against the drug war that human rights activists say has killed tens of thousands.”
Human rights activists say they welcome the conviction, but call for further reforms in the Philippines, where politically motivated killings and attacks on journalists are common.
The “momentous verdict should help provide justice to the families of the victims, and build towards greater accountability for rights abuses in the country,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“More broadly, this verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for ‘private armies’ and militias that promote the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans,” he said.
The conditions for extrajudicial killings have flourished under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte. Since coming into power in 2016, Duterte’s administration has enacted a violent “war on drugs” across the country. According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, 5,526 suspected drug users and dealers have died during police operations, but in December 2018, the country’s Commission on Human Rights estimated the number of drug-war killings could be as high as 27,000.
Two separate investigations by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court are currently being carried out in the Philippines, with the UN looking into the issue of extrajudicial killings while the ICC is conducting preliminary investigations into the president for alleged crimes against humanity.
Duterte’s aggression has extended to the media, too. When sworn in as president, he issued a warning to those who would challenge him: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” he said.
Last year, three journalists were killed in cases that the Society of Professional Journalists says were likely perpetrated by agents working for local politicians.
Overall, since the Ampatuan massacre, a further 52 media workers have been killed in the Philippines, bringing the total death toll of murdered journalists since the return of democracy to the Philippines to 191.