MANILA, Philippines - The Arroyo administration knew about the chainsaw killings and other alleged atrocities committed by the Ampatuan clan even before the November 23 massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao, the country's human rights chief said Thursday.
Commission on Human Rights (CHR) head Leila de Lima said the chainsaw killings were revealed in an anonymous letter signed by a group calling itself the Concerned People's Organization.
She said the letter, which revealed several alleged inhumane acts of the Ampatuans, was first received by the office of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Aug. 11, 2008.
De Lima said the letter included the story of the wife of former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. The letter said the Ampatuan's wife had fallen in love with a young man.
“The young man was ordered killed and shot to death before the eyes of the helpless grandfather,” she said in a radio dzMM interview.
De Lima said the Office of the President referred the letter to the Office of the Ombudsman who passed it on to the CHR, she said.
De Lima said the CHR central office immediately sent a memorandum to its regional office in Mindanao to look into the allegations in the letter, which include corrupt practices, chainsaw killings, a burying of a whole family alive and several other "acts of tyranny" of the Ampatuans.
She said the regional office tried to discreetly look for witnesses but failed. She admitted that the rights workers could not do much to confirm the allegations because they, too, were afraid of being caught by the Ampatuans.
The CHR chief earlier told reporters that the Ampatuans have been linked to at least 200 murders in Maguindanao.
"Everybody was aware (of the killings), but they have been tolerated. That is why we want full accountability now. The years of tolerance and neglect are over," she said.
She said at least five policemen and civilians have expressed willingness to stand witness to the alleged crimes of the Ampatuans. She added that the possible witnesses have also revealed that there are at least 2 more killing fields in the province.
Taking advantage of martial law
While the CHR is against President Arroyo's declaration of martial law in the province, it will take advantage of the proclamation to look for more witnesses.
“We want to take advantage of the relative peace in the area. The military forces are there and more or less the Ampatuans have been contained or neutralized,” she said.
De Lima said they would have to validate the information about the additional mass graves before excavating for more murder victims.
She also made an appeal to other residents of Maguindanao who may have knowledge of the mass graves.
“We hope that they can come to us so we can start the laying down of the ground works for the excavation of these mass graves,” she said.
De Lima said the 2 mass graves are separate from the mass grave where the 57 victims of the November 23 massacre were buried. Majority of the massacre victims were women and journalists, who were supposed to provide protection for a convoy of a rival political family.
Among those brutally killed were the wife of Buluan town Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu and his sisters.
Police said the women could have been raped and majority of them had gunshot and stab wounds in their private parts.