Ampatuan massacre trial hearings to finish by year-end: top judge

Student protesters hold a slogan denouncing the killing of 58 people, including at least 32 media workers, during a rally in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, Philippines on Sunday Nov. 21, 2010. Almost a year has past since Andal Ampatuan Jr., the scion of a powerful clan, was said to have led his men in killing 58 people, including 32 media workers, in southern Maguindanao province.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Student protesters hold a slogan denouncing the killing of 58 people, including at least 32 media workers, during a rally in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, Philippines on Sunday Nov. 21, 2010. Almost a year has past since Andal Ampatuan Jr., the scion of a powerful clan, was said to have led his men in killing 58 people, including 32 media workers, in southern Maguindanao province.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Manila, Philippines | AFP |  – Trial hearings of defendants accused of the massacre of 58 people in the Philippines will finish by the end of the year, the country’s chief justice vowed Thursday.

Prosecution and defense lawyers will finish presenting evidence by the end of 2015, after which the judge has 90 days to issue a verdict, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno told reporters.

“It is excruciatingly slow for the victims’ families. That is not debatable, it is painful, there must be closure,” Sereno said.

The trial involves members of the influential Ampatuan clan which allegedly ordered the slaughter of 58 people, including 32 journalists, in the conflict-wracked province of Maguindanao in November 2009 in an attempt to crush a rival clan’s election challenge.

The brutal massacre, one of the world’s deadliest attacks against media workers, saw some shot in their genitals before they were buried in a hilltop grave using an excavator.

The slow pace of the trial has angered the families of the victims and frustrated President Benigno Aquino, who has promised a verdict before he steps down from office in mid-2016.

Widows of victims spoke out last month after one of the principal accused, Andal Ampatuan Sr, died of liver cancer while under hospital guard.

Sereno said the court has resolved most of the bail petitions that caused much of the delays in the six-year long proceedings.

Two sons of Andal Ampatuan Sr, Andal Jnr and Zaldy, are among 100 people on trial for one of the world’s most shocking mass murders.

The Ampatuans ruled Maguindanao for over a decade under the patronage of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who had tolerated the clan’s private army as a buffer against Muslim separatist rebels.

Widow Merly Perante, whose journalist husband Ronnie was among those slain, said she was cheered by Sereno’s announcement but stressed that getting justice was still her priority.

“I accept that the process can be lengthy, as long as we are not disappointed with the result, as long as they get convicted and get the right punishment,” she told AFP.

Court cases in the Philippines sometimes take decades to finish, weighed down by a shortage of judges and courthouses and legal technicalities that can be used to delay a case.

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