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Key witness in 2009 massacre of 58 people killed

Philippine authorities urged to keep remaining witnesses safe as trial of suspects drags on

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Published: November 19, 2014 10:35 AM GMT

Updated: November 19, 2014 05:15 AM GMT

Key witness in 2009 massacre of 58 people killed

Philippine media organizations start the weeklong commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the 2009 massacre of journalists by unfurling black drapes on the facade of the National Press Club building in Manila (Photo by Kathy Yamzon)

A key witness in the 2009 killing of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in the province of Maguindanao was killed while another was injured in an ambush by gunmen in Shariff Aguak town on Tuesday. 

Authorities identified the slain man as Dennis Sakal, a witness who used to serve as a driver for former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr, one of the suspected masterminds of the killings.

Sakal's companion, Butch Saudagal, a former staff member of Ampatuan's son, Andal Jr, was injured in the incident.

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At least six Ampatuan clan members are among 197 people charged over the massacre, allegedly carried out to prevent a member of a rival clan from running as governor of Maguindanao.

The main suspect, Datu Unsay Ampatuan Jr, allegedly led about 100 armed men who stopped a convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu and then summarily executed 58 people.

Tuesday's ambush happened five days ahead of the fifth anniversary of the massacre in Ampatuan town.

"It is with extreme grief and disappointment that another vital witness in the gruesome Ampatuan massacre case was lost in an ambush staged by minions of the suspects," said Joel Egco, president of the National Press Club.

Egco said the masterminds of the massacre "seemed to have shifted their strategy away from the confines of their jail cells". 

He warned that potential witnesses and their families will be subjected to assassination, harassment and the worst forms of intimidation.

"A case without a witness is a lost one. For dead men tell no tales," said Egco, adding that Sakal's death "dealt another serious blow to the aging case that moves far slower than a dying snail".

Egco said the incident showed how lax the government is in terms of ensuring the protection of witnesses.

He urged law enforcement agencies and a government prosecutors panel to come up with a "foolproof mechanism" to protect witnesses.

Mangudadatu, whose wife and family members died in the massacre, condemned the attack on the witnesses.

"I cautioned them to be extra careful in their everyday dealings. The suspects are desperate enough to find a way to strike against those who will put them down," said Mangudadatu.

President Benigno Aquino has previously expressed frustration with the slow pace of the massacre trial.

Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for Aquino, said the murders were a setback.

"It does not help the morale of the other witnesses,” she added.

Additional reporting by AFP

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