MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte helped search for the 58 victims of the Maguindanao massacre, a politician who lost relatives in the carnage said ahead of Thursday's verdict in the 10-year-old case.
Fifty-eight people, including 32 journalists were killed on Nov. 23, 2009 when the private army of the Ampatuan clan ambushed a convoy that was on its was on its way to file election papers of a rival, Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu.
Considered as the worst political attack in the country, some of the victims bodies were shot in the genitals and their bodies were buried in a hilltop grave using an excavator.
Duterte, who was then mayor of neighboring Davao City, helped borrow a helicopter to search for the hilltop massacre site, said Mangudadatu, now Maguindanao congressman.
Gunmen were still digging shallow graves using backhoes when the helicopter found the site, which prompted them to flee, he said.
"Kung hindi nagpahiram si Mayor Duterte noon, si Presidente, halos walang traces na makita," he told radio DZMM.
(If then Mayor Duterte, the President, didn't get a helicopter for us, almost no traces would have been found.)
A special court will hand down on Thursday verdicts for 101 defendants in custody. The trial was earlier marred by allegations of bribery, defense delays, the murder of several witnesses and fear that the still powerful accused could be acquitted.
The victims' quest for justice does not end with the guilty verdict they are hoping for, said Mangudadatu. The accused can seek a reconsideration of the ruling while the Ampatuans are slowly "restored" to power, he said.
The clan won 25 local seats in May's elections including Sajid Ampatuan, a defendant in the massacre case who was released on bail.
The 101 defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, face up to 30 years in prison without parole if convicted of even one of the 58 murders, lawyers representing many of the victims' families said.
Some 80 other suspects remained at large, putting the victims' families "at risk", said the Human Rights Watch.
-- With a report from Agence France-Presse