MANILA, Philippines -- A Philippine court on Thursday found key members of a powerful political clan guilty of a 2009 massacre in a southern province that left 57 people dead, including 32 media workers, in a brazen execution-style attack that horrified the world.
Families of the victims and media watchdogs welcomed the convictions but said the fight for justice was far from over.
Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes sentenced eight members of the Ampatuan family led by former town Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., who she said oversaw and led the killings, and 20 others to life imprisonment without parole. Their time in prison is limited to 40 years, the maximum punishment allowed by law. They were also ordered to compensate the victims' families.
The judge acquitted more than 50 police officers and other members of the Ampatuan family, citing a lack of evidence, while 15 people were given 6- to 10-year prison terms as accomplices.
Applause and cheers rang out in the courtroom, where some relatives of the victims heard the reading of the verdict from a 761-page decision.
“This is a partial victory,” Rep. Esmael Mangudadatu, who lost his wife, sisters, an aunt and many supporters in the Nov. 23, 2009, killings, told reporters outside the packed and heavily secured courtroom.
Mangudadatu raised his right fist to show he would fight on with the expected appeals of those convicted.
“This momentous verdict should help provide justice to the families of the victims, and build toward greater accountability for rights abuses in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International said that even with the convictions, "the families’ search for justice remains far from over. Some 80 other people accused have yet to be arrested.”
President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman said the rule of law had prevailed and urged those who disagree with the verdict to continue seeking legal remedies up to the Supreme Court.
The case involved more than 100 detained suspects and is seen as a test of the Southeast Asian nation’s notoriously clogged and vulnerable judicial system.
While the mass killing has largely unraveled as an offshoot of a violent electoral rivalry common in many rural areas, it has also showcased the threats faced by journalists in the Philippines. Thirty-two of those gunned down were local reporters and media workers in the worst single attack on journalists in the world.
“If I have the power to kill them all in a blink of an eye, I would have done it. But I realized in the end that I’m not a demon like them,” said Mary Grace Morales. Her husband, a reporter for a provincial newspaper, and her elder sister, the paper's publisher, were among those killed, mostly in a blaze of automatic rifle fire as they begged for their lives.
Ampatuan Jr. was convicted of leading nearly 200 armed followers who blocked a seven-vehicle convoy carrying the relatives and lawyers of Mangudadatu, a politician who decided to run for governor of Maguindanao province. He challenged the powerful Ampatuan clan, which held sway over almost every aspect of life in the impoverished region long wracked by a Muslim insurgency.
The gunmen commandeered the convoy, including the passengers of two unsuspecting cars that got stuck in the traffic, to a nearby hilltop, where a waiting backhoe had dug huge pits to be used to bury the victims and their vehicles.
The court found that Ampatuan Jr. and his followers opened fire on the victims at close range and hurriedly escaped after sensing that army troops were approaching. The mutilated bodies were found inside the vans, sprawled on the ground or buried in the pits with some of the vehicles, in a gruesome scene that drew international outrage and shocked many even in a country long used to political violence.
The Ampatuans have denied the charges against them.
Prosecutors have insisted for years that there were 58 people killed but the court on Thursday declared there were only 57 victims because the body of one media worker, Reynaldo Momay, was never found although parts of his dentures were located.
At least three witnesses who testified against the Ampatuans have been killed over the years, according to Nena Santos, a lawyer for Mangudadatu and families of several other victims. She said she had been threatened with death multiple times and offered a huge amount of money to withdraw from the case.
Gloria Teodoro, whose journalist husband was among the victims, said the government should work to eradicate the lethal mix of problems that allowed the massacre to happen, including the large number of high-powered firearms in the hands of many politicians and clans and a long-entrenched culture of impunity.
Otherwise, she said, such political violence, even on a less gruesome scale, would go on.
Associated Press journalists Aaron Favila, Francisco Rosario and Basilio Sepe in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.