MANILA, Philippines – MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' Department of Justice has dropped murder charges against two members of a warlord clan accused in the massacre of 57 political rivals and journalists, sparking protests Sunday and bringing relatives of the victims to tears.
The Nov. 23 slaughter, which was condemned by the international community, was unprecedented even in a country known for election violence and political killings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade.
Among the dead were more than 30 journalists and their staff — the deadliest known attack on media workers in the world. The killings elevated the Philippines to the top of a list of the world's most dangerous places for journalists.
At least 198 suspects have been charged in court with multiple murder, including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan that has ruled over southern Maguindanao province for years. Several more suspects remain at large.
The Ampatuans have been close political allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for years, helping her win elections in 2004.
Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said he has ordered prosecutors to remove the names of Zaldy Ampatuan, a former governor of a Muslim autonomous region, and his brother-in-law Akhmad from the charge sheets for lack of strong evidence linking them to the planning and staging of the carnage in Maguindanao's Ampatuan township.
"There is no evidence to prove conspiracy and there is evidence to support their alibi," Agra told The Associated Press.
Zaldy Ampatuan provided cell phone bills and airline tickets showing he was not at a Nov. 22 meeting where the killings were allegedly planned, or at the crime scene the next day, Agra said. Akhmad presented witnesses and pictures showing he was at a medical mission when the killings occurred, he said.
However, Agra rejected petitions from the principal suspect, former Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., and his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., to be cleared of the murder charges. Witnesses have testified seeing Andal Ampatuan Jr. leading gunmen in killing the unarmed victims as they pleaded for their lives.
Prosecutors have filed murder charges against the Ampatuans in a Quezon City court. The justice secretary must ask the court to approve his decision to drop charges against Zaldy and Akhmad.
Several relatives of the victims wept after learning of Agra's decision, according to Harry Roque, a lawyer for the victims, adding that they plan to appeal the ruling.
"They wept not only for this injustice but also out of fear for their safety," Roque said. "They cannot sleep now that the Ampatuans are being cleared."
Several student activists protested outside the Department of Justice, carrying placards that called Arroyo and the department "coddlers of murderers."
A media watchdog, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, blamed Arroyo and Agra "for this massacre of ... justice, the rule of law, our basic rights and democracy."
The indictment says the clan leaders conspired to ambush and kill members of the rival Mangudadatu family and their supporters, who were gunned down on a hilltop in Maguindanao. The attack apparently was aimed at preventing a Mangudadatu politician from challenging the Ampatuans' control of the province in a gubernatorial election in next month.
The Ampatuans have denied the charges, and most of their armed followers have fled a massive crackdown in the province, about 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Manila. Thousands of militiamen loyal to the clan are still in hiding, triggering sporadic clashes with government troops.
Last month, another court dismissed separate rebellion charges against the Ampatuan patriarch, four of his sons and several followers for lack of evidence. They had been accused of plotting an uprising after the government launched a crackdown on the clan when it was linked to the killings.