Philippines freezes $23M tied to massacre suspects

A Philippine court Tuesday froze $23 million in bank accounts and assets linked to suspects in the 2009 politically motivated massacre of at least 57 people.

The Court of Appeals order targets the assets of the Ampatuans, one of the Philippines' wealthiest and most influential families whose most senior members are on trial for multiple murder.

Since the killings, the Ampatuans have come under scrutiny for corruption and using their power as elected representatives to amass wealth illegally.

The principal suspect, former town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., is accused of leading about 150 gunmen with his father's approval in stopping an election caravan and mowing down the family and supporters of a political rival. Most of the victims were women and included at least 31 journalists and their staff, the single worst killing of media workers in the world.

A total of 196 people have been charged with multiple murder, 90 of whom are in custody, and 58 have been arraigned. More than 50 others are still at large.

Andal Ampatuan and his father, former provincial governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., have pleaded not guilty. About a dozen family members have been charged.

Until they were arrested 18 months ago, the Ampatuans held key posts in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines and named towns after their relatives. They ruled virtually unopposed for about a decade and delivered the votes for their ally, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and her candidates in national elections.

The court said in Tuesday's ruling that the 1 billion peso ($23 million) includes the assets of the Ampatuans in several government agencies, banking institutions and other entities that are believed to have been used in amassing ill-gotten wealth.

The Anti-Money Laundry Council cited a report by the government's anti-graft prosecutor saying that Ampatuan Sr. allegedly failed to declare about 90 million pesos ($2 million) in his statement of assets and liabilities.

According to the council, he owns 27 houses and 91 vehicles and failed to declared the true value of the assets.

Unless frozen, "the funds in the subject accounts will certainly be withdrawn and the other identified properties disposed of, thereby placing them beyond the reach of the law," the court said.

Based on estimates from the council, the petitioner in the case, the Ampatuan funds "may not be considered valid and legitimate as these were supported by documents considered as spurious."

The court order covers the assets of 28 Ampatuan family members.