MANILA, Philippines – A third witness in the 2009 election-related massacre of 57 people in the Philippines has been killed and his body chopped to pieces, a prosecutor said Thursday, casting a shadow over efforts to deliver justice in the country's worst recent bloodletting.
The victim, Esmail Amil Enog, testified in court last year that he drove dozens of gunmen to the site of the massacre in southern Maguindanao province from the residence of one of the suspects.
Enog was killed in March but authorities learned about it only recently, prosecutor Nena Santos said. He had refused protection from the Justice Department, she said.
Members of the politically powerful Ampatuan clan are suspected in the massacre of their opponents in the impoverished, lawless region.
Among the dead were at least 31 media workers who traveled in a convoy that was ambushed en route to register the candidacy for governor of one of the Ampatuans' rivals. It was the single worst killing of journalists in the world.
Enog was a member of a government-armed militia force that was working for the Ampatuans, who were mayors and governors in the region. He testified in July 2011 that he drove 36 other militiamen from the residence of Kanor Ampatuan, a cousin of clan patriarch and chief suspect Andal Ampatuan Sr., to a remote village in Ampatuan township where the 57 victims were brought and shot at close range.
The gunmen tried to hide the massacre by burying the bodies and some of their vehicles in a common grave.
Santos said Enog had refused the government's witness protection program because he did not want to be separated from his family. "Life is difficult under the witness protection program," she said.
She said that police reported his body was found dismembered and no suspect had been arrested.
He was the third witness to be killed since the trial opened inside a maximum security prison in Manila in 2010. More than 20 witnesses have testified against 103 suspects who have pleaded not guilty to murder charges. Nearly 100 others are still at large.
The trial has been moving at a slow pace, frustrating victims' relatives. It is not clear how long the proceedings will last and whether they will result in convictions. No verdict has been announced yet.
Santos said that witnesses and their families continue to face death threats and some are being offered bribes not to testify. A sibling of another witness also has been killed, she said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Philippine government to redouble its efforts to protect witnesses in the massacre case.
"As the reported killing of witness Esmail Amil Enog underscores, these witnesses are in extreme danger and it is appalling that they are being hunted down one after the other," the group's deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said in a statement.