Philippine justice chief, under public pressure, keeps massacre charges vs. 2 clan members

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine justice chief on Wednesday reversed his decision to drop murder charges against two suspects in last year's massacre of 57 people following complaints from victims' families and his own prosecutors.

Among 198 suspects in the Nov. 23 killings, the Philippines' worst political violence, are members of the powerful Ampatuan clan. They are accused of leading police and government-armed militia in the slaughter of their political rivals and at least 30 journalists accompanying them.

Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra has been the target of protests since his April 17 decision to clear a brother and a cousin of principal suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., citing lack of evidence.

State prosecutors handling the case criticized him and demanded he reconsider. Their complaints coincided with protests by journalists' groups, human rights organizations and the victims' families, who all questioned President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's commitment to seeking justice.

Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza, the Cabinet's most senior official, also has called on Agra to meet with prosecutors and review all evidence.

Agra said Wednesday that he had found new evidence based on two witness testimonies to keep murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of a Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines, and his cousin Akmad Ampatuan.

"I am now convinced that there is probable cause," he told reporters.

The Ampatuans have denied the charges against them. The emotional trial opened in January in the Philippines' largest criminal case since the country's post-World War II prosecutions.

The Ampatuans were close allies of Arroyo, the outgoing president, and helped her win the 2004 elections, but were expelled from her political party after the killings.

Witnesses have testified that Andal Ampatuan, a former town mayor, led dozens of gunmen in blocking a convoy of the rival Mangudadatu clan members, followers and journalists as they were about to register a gubernatorial candidate to challenge the Ampatuans' control of southern Maguindanao province. They were later shot and buried in mass graves on a nearby hilltop.

The suspects include Ampatuan's father and family patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., and four other relatives.