Maguindanao massacre: How the Ampatuans allegedly killed 58 people

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A look back at the grisly crime, which witnesses say was planned and executed by the Ampatuan family.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — It took members of the Ampatuan clan four months to plan the most brutal massacre in the country's recent history, according to the whistleblowers in the case.

One of the prosecution's key witnesses, Sukarno Badal, testified that he was present when family patriarch Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr. met with relatives, political advisers, and allies on July 20, 2009 to unveil the plot to kill then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu – for refusing to back down from the race for Maguindanao governor.

Andal Sr., was the incumbent, while his son and namesake Datu Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan, Jr. – then mayor of Datu Unsay town – was running to succeed him. Mangudadatu, who is also from a ruling political family in Mindanao, was seeking to end the 20-year rule of the Ampatuan family in Maguindanao.

Witness accounts showed that everything was set for November 23, 2009. A heavily armed Unsay was seen with members of his family's alleged private army guarding checkpoints in the town of Ampatuan. But their target, Mangudadatu, was nowhere to be found.

Mangudadatu told the court that his family and advisors decided to send his wife and other female family members to file his certificate of candidacy that day, confident that no harm would come to them because Islam, the dominant religion in the Muslim autonomous region, commands that women should be treated with utmost respect.

The Mangudadatu women were among the 58 people who were shot to death when their convoy of eight vehicles were ambushed that morning. Their corpses, along with 32 journalists who were going to cover the event, were hastily buried in three shallow graves on a hilltop.

The Maguindanao massacre has gone down in history as the world's deadliest single attack on journalists, and the worst case of election-related violence in the Philippines.

READ: Ten years after Maguindanao massacre, attacks against journalists 'amplified'

The plot to kill Mangudadatu

Maguindanao Second District Representative Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu

In his testimony, Mangudadatu, now Maguindanao Second District Representative, said that the Ampatuans had personally asked him at least twice to drop his political bid: on July 20, 2009 during a meeting with then Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and three weeks later, at a dinner with then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

He turned down both appeals of the powerful Ampatuans who were allied with Arroyo.

Just moments after the first rejection, the plan to assassinate Mangudadatu was born, according to Badal, former vice mayor of Sultan sa Barongis town who claimed to be a commander of the Ampatuan clan's private army.

Badal said the family discussed the planned murder at a hotel in Manila after Ampatuan Sr.'s meeting with Mangudadatu and Teodoro. The next day, Ampatuan Sr., Datu Unsay, their escorts, and Badal left for Mindanao – with 200 firearms for carrying out the plan that would be implemented four months later.

Another witness, Lakmodin Saliao, said he served as personal assistant or kasambahay (house help) to several members of the Ampatuan clan, including the patriarch. According to him, the family also met in the house of Unsay's brother, Zaldy, a week before the massacre. In that meeting, the family patriarch asked those present – his sons and supporters – if they agreed to kill Mangudadatu, Saliao said everyone answered in the affirmative, while laughing.

Datu Unsay even assured his father that he himself would block the Mangudadatu convoy and pull the trigger, Saliao recalled.

"Madali lang yan, Ama. Patayin sila lahat kapag pumunta sila dito (That's easy, Father. Kill everyone who comes here)," Saliao quoted Unsay as saying.

The young Ampatuan made good on his word, witness accounts showed. Two days before the bloody killing, Unsay put up checkpoints to cover all roads to the provincial capitol in Shariff Aguak, where Mangudadatu would have to file his certificate of candidacy at the local office of the Commission on Elections.

Killing spree

Armed men were stationed in these checkpoints on the morning of November 23, 2009. The convoy carrying Mangudadatu's wife Bai Gigi and sister Bai Eden was flagged down at Sitio Malating.

Badal said Datu Unsay himself went through Bai Gigi's handbag to look for Mangudadatu's certificate of candidacy.

Mangudadatu said his wife called him at around 9 or 10 a.m.

"Maraming lalaking naka-armado. Nandito na si Unsay, sinampal niya ako (There are many armed men. Unsay is here. He slapped me)," she told her husband. These were her last words before her phone was turned off.

The unarmed people on board the eight vehicles of the Mangudadatu convoy were brought to the hills of Sitio Masalay. They were dragged one by one, and made to stand in front of Datu Unsay – starting with Bai Gigi and Bai Eden, Badal testified.

Unsay and his men then shot them using high-powered firerams, "killing them in a competitive fashion," according to the memorandum submitted by the prosecution to the court.

Akmad Esmael Abubakar, a farmer and resident of Sitio Malating, said he saw Unsay shoot a lady in the mouth. Another resident, Norodin Mauyag, said Unsay pulled a woman who was shot between the legs.

Among the last to be killed were the journalists, Badal said. They were inside one vehicle which was peppered by bullets.

Unsay and his men fled the scene after receiving information that soldiers were on their way to the area. Unsay asked the operator of a backhoe to bury all corpses and vehicles. The backhoe, according to the prosecution, was owned by the provincial government.

When the multiple murder case was filed, 197 individuals were charged, 15 of them surnamed Ampatuan.

Unsay's alibi

Despite many eye witness accounts of local residents and self-confessed aides of the Ampatuan family, Unsay maintained he was never at the scene of the crime.

The mayor said he left his house early to attend a bi-weekly regular meeting at the Municipal Hall of Datu Unsay from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The defense submitted the four-page minutes of the meeting as evidence and presented local officials who backed Unsay's statement.

Unsay also said he flew to the US on November 17 and returned on November 22 and went to bed early for the next day's meeting. This period covered some of the dates when the Ampatuans supposedly met and talked about taking down Mangudadatu.

READ: ‘Not enough’ evidence vs. Ampatuan Jr. for guilty verdict in Maguindanao massacre case, lawyer says

Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, almost escaped trial in 2010 when then Justice Secretary Alberto Agra ordered state prosecutors to clear him and cousin Akmad Ampatuan, Sr. The prosecutors defied the order.

In 2015, the clan's 74-year-old patriarch died in detention due to complications from liver cancer. Seven other suspects died during the trial which lasted for almost ten years.

Ampatuans' 'bloody' history

Prior to facing trial for the infamous bloodbath, the Ampatuans were known as a powerful warlord clan in Mindanao.

A report of the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that the Ampatuans and its private army, allegedly composed of up to 5,000 militiamen, police, and military personnel, were linked to killings, torture, sexual assault, and abductions. Of the 52 incidents that the group looked into, the police "routinely failed to conduct serious investigations" and no one went to jail for them, it added.

One of these cases was mentioned by the prosecution. It noted that in 1995, eyewitnesses saw assemblyman Zaldy Ampatuan shoot Akas Paglala and his brother in broad daylight. Paglala was on his way to file his candidacy for the mayoral race of Magonoy, now known as Shariff Aguak, where the Ampatuan patriarch was the incumbent mayor.

10-year-trial

Families of the 58 victims of the Maguindanao massacre have sought justice for more than a decade.

One of their lawyers, Nene Santos, who oversaw the entire trial attributed the delay to the huge number of accused, changes of legal counsels, numerous motions filed, and the threats faced by witnesses and lawyers, among others.

An early setback was the murder of key witness, Suwaib Upham, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman on June 14, 2010. A self-confessed member of the Ampatuan's militia, Upham agreed to testify against his former bosses in exchange for government protection. He was slain before the Justice Department could admit him to the Witness Protection Program.

READ: Lawmakers bare threat to disrupt Maguindanao massacre verdict proceedings

Early this year, Zaldy Ampatuan was granted temporary release to attend his daughter's wedding where President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter and top aide were principal sponsors. Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio and Senator Christopher "Bong" Go did not attend. The Justice Department said its prosecutors "vigorously opposed" Ampatuan's motion for furlough, but the court allowed it for humanitarian reasons.

Victims' families, lawyers, and human rights groups say the only acceptable decision for the court is a conviction of the Ampatuans.

READ: 'One conviction enough as Christmas gift for kin of Maguindanao Massacre victims'

Tune in to CNN Philippines for the special coverage of the Maguindanao massacre verdict on Thursday, 8 am, on free TV channel 9 or via our livestream.