Families wait for justice 7 years after Philippine massacre

MANILA, Philippines -- Relatives of victims of a 2009 massacre in the southern Philippines that left 58 people dead, more than half of them media workers, marched Wednesday to the presidential palace in Manila to protest the lack of convictions in the ongoing trial seven years after the killings took place.

Other relatives attended a Mass and lit candles at a southern cemetery where some victims are buried to mark the anniversary of the Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Ampatuan town, the bloodiest election-related killings in the Philippines and the world's worst single attack on journalists.

The victims were traveling in a convoy of vehicles when they were flagged down and escorted to a hilltop where police and gunmen loyal to a local warlord are accused of summarily executing and burying them in mass graves.

The killings allegedly were an attempt to prevent the provincial strongman's rival from contesting elections in one of the poorest and most violent corners of the country.

"It's been seven years, but we have not seen any progress," Arlene Lupogan, a widow of one of the slain journalists, said as she suppressed tears. "It is so painful for us that every year we are here, but nothing has changed."

Mary Grace Morales, whose husband and sister were among the 32 media workers killed, lamented the previous administration's promise to convict the perpetrators came to nothing. She said families of the victims want to meet with President Rodrigo Duterte to call for justice.

"We cannot do anything but hope," she said from southern General Santos City.

The human-rights group Amnesty International expressed disappointment two consecutive administrations have failed to provide justice for the victims and their families, with the trial marked by delays. It said it has not seen a genuine commitment from Duterte to protect press freedom.

The trial has been the biggest in the country, with at least 197 people charged, including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao province, and 112 people arraigned.

The suspects have denied the charges against them.

Amnesty International said the suspects have been freed on bail, witnesses have been killed and private armies continue to operate, employed by the same families in Maguindanao.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it sees a resurgence of threats against the media under Duterte, "who would brook absolutely no criticism of his person or his policies."

Duterte's spokesman, Martin Andanar, said the president is determined to prevent a repeat of the massacre and to protect journalists.