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Human Rights Watch calls on authorities to protect witnesses to Maguindanao massacre

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, March 8, 2010 - Philippine authorities should act swiftly to protect eyewitnesses to the November 2009 massacre of at least 57 people in Maguindanao province on Mindanao, and to protect their families as well, Human Rights Watch said today.

Concerns for the safety of witnesses are highlighted by the killings of two relatives of witnesses and the shooting of a third; the large number of police, military, and paramilitary personnel implicated in the massacre who remain at large; and lax security measures that allowed one suspect to escape detention, Human Rights Watch said.

"Witnesses won't come forward if there is a 'second Maguindanao massacre' of witnesses and their families," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to act quickly to protect witnesses and their relatives, and to arrest and securely detain the remaining suspects."

On November 23, 2009, in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao, Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, dozens of gunmen stopped a convoy that was en route to file Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu's candidacy for the upcoming Maguindanao gubernatorial elections. The gunmen summarily executed at least 57 people, including Mangudadatu family members and supporters, bystanders, and more than 30 media workers.

Those charged with the killings include members of the local governing family, the Ampatuans, together with police, military, and paramilitary personnel. Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of Datu Unsay and son of the Maguindanao governor, Andal Ampatuan Sr., is the lead suspect in the case. He was charged on December 1, 2009; he is in custody while his bail hearing continues.

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