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07.01.2010 International

Philippines Massacre Suspect Pleads Not Guilty

By Daily Graphic
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The main suspect in the mass killing of 57 people in the southern Philippines, Andal Ampatuan Junior, has pleaded not guilty to 41 counts of murder.

Mr Ampatuan is part of a politically influential clan which has close ties to President Gloria Arroyo.

The massacre, in November, of members of another important political family, and journalists travelling with them, shocked the nation. They were on their way to register a candidate for local elections.

Prosecutors say Mr Ampatuan led more than 100 armed men who stopped the convoy in which the group was travelling, then killed them and buried them in mass graves.

His father and many other clan members have been charged with rebellion.

Mr Ampatuan was guarded by more than 30 heavily armed police as he attended court in the capital, Manila, yesterday.

He stood emotionless next to his lawyer as prosecutors accused him of 'conspiring, confederating and mutually helping' others in the gruesome murders.

When asked to enter a plea, his defence lawyer Sigfrid Fortun said: 'Not guilty.'

At a preliminary hearing, Mr Ampatuan was jostled and hit by an angry crowd of journalists, upset by the large number of colleagues, thought to be at least 30, whose lives were lost in the mass killing.

The judge adjourned the trial until next week to allow for a dozen witnesses to be called to support a bail application.

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey says the trial is likely to be long and convoluted, and is widely being seen as a test of the Philippines justice system.

The Ampatuan clan were once loyal supporters of President Arroyo, our correspondent says, and so proceedings are likely to be scrutinised for any sign of leniency. — BBC

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