By Cecil Morella, AFP
MANILA — Relatives of some of the 57 people killed in the Philippines’ worst political massacre sued then-president Gloria Arroyo on Tuesday for arming and supporting the alleged murderers, their lawyer said. The civil suit seeking 15 million pesos (US$345,000) in damages will force Arroyo to fight another tough legal battle, after police charged her last week with conspiring to rig the 2007 senatorial elections. The lawyer for relatives of 15 victims who filed the suit, Harry Roque, said it was filed on Tuesday with a Manila court, deliberately timed to raise public awareness ahead of Wednesday’s two-year anniversary of the massacre. Government prosecutors allege that leaders of the Ampatuan family, who ruled the southern province of Maguindanao, orchestrated the massacre to stop a political rival from challenging them in local elections. “She enabled the Ampatuans to do what they did by arming them, by legitimizing their private army, by giving them aid and by giving them political support,” Roque told AFP. The patriarch of the family, Andal Ampatuan Sr., was governor of Maguindanao and a member of Arroyo’s ruling coalition at the time of the massacre.
Arroyo’s government had given the Ampatuans military hardware and allowed them to run their own private army of a few thousand men as a proxy force in the fight against secessionist Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines. Arroyo was forced to cut all ties with the Ampatuans following the murders. Ampatuan Snr is in detention and on trial over the murders, along with his son and namesake, who is accused of leading more than 100 gunmen in detaining the victims and massacring them on a secluded rural road in Maguindanao. The trial is expected to last years and victims’ relatives have expressed growing frustration at the slow pace of the criminal proceedings. One of Arroyo’s lawyers, Ferdinand Topacio, responded to the lawsuit by insisting his client had no direct link to the killings. “We firmly believe that former president Arroyo has no responsibility for the Maguindanao massacre,” Topacio said on GMA television. Arroyo’s legal spokesman, Raul Lambino, also said the civil suit was simply harassment, coming as the ailing ex-president had to face the vote-rigging charges. “We consider that as the latest of a series of attempts to put the squeeze on the Arroyos,” Lambino said on ABS-CBN television. President Benigno Aquino, who won presidential elections last year in a landslide after vowing to fight corruption, has made pursuing Arroyo the top priority of his anti-graft campaign. His aides have said Arroyo will likely have to face many more charges for corrupt acts she allegedly committed while she was president from 2001 to 2010. She has denied all wrongdoing.