Philippines president imposes martial law

Rights groups, rivals accuse her of overreacting

Filipino activists demonstrated in Manila, seeking justice for victims of a mass killing in southern Maguindanao Province. Filipino activists demonstrated in Manila, seeking justice for victims of a mass killing in southern Maguindanao Province. (Associated Press)
By Pat Roque
Associated Press / December 6, 2009

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GENERAL SANTOS, Philippines - The president imposed martial law yesterday on a southern province where 57 people were killed in a political massacre, while security forces detained members of a powerful clan accused of plotting the attack and fomenting a rebellion.

It was the first time martial rule has been declared in the country since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed it more than three decades ago. With memories of abuses from that time still fresh in their minds, opposition politicians and human rights groups questioned President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s action, saying she overreacted to a police problem.

Government officials defended Arroyo, saying she acted decisively to bring suspects in the mass slayings into custody and head off a rebellion by the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled impoverished Maguindanao Province unopposed for years.

Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan patriarch and a former governor who was among those detained yesterday, and at least six other family members are the main suspects in the Nov. 23 attack on a political rival’s convoy. Some 30 journalists were among the dead. The family has denied involvement.

The Ampatuans, notorious for running a large private army, were allied with Arroyo and helped her receive crucial votes from the volatile southern region during 2004 elections. Arroyo’s ruling party expelled the clan after the massacre.

The martial law proclamation allows troops to make arrests without court warrants and to restore order, Arroyo’s top Cabinet member, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, announced on national television yesterday.

The last Philippine leader to declare martial law was Marcos, whose nationwide declaration in 1972 paved the way for his one-man rule that ended with his ouster in 1986.

Under the post-Marcos constitution, Arroyo can enforce martial law for 60 days, unless Congress revokes or extends it.

Fidel Ramos, a former president who was a supporter of Arroyo but has recently been critical of her actions, described her move as “overkill.’’

In yesterday’s announcement, Ermita cited military reports as saying heavily armed supporters of the Ampatuans had “plans to undertake hostile action’’ if clan members were arrested.

“We felt that this is a very imminent threat, so we recommended this proclamation,’’ said General Victor Ibrado, military chief of staff. “By their sheer number, they are really a threat to the peace and order of the province.’’

Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said the arrested men would be charged with rebellion, which carries a penalty of up to 40 years in prison.

CenterLaw, a group of human rights lawyers, said there were insufficient grounds for martial law and would challenge it in the Supreme Court.

“The Constitution limits the grounds to insurrection, rebellion, and invasion. None of these grounds are existent,’’ it said in a statement. “We call on the citizenry to be vigilant for the defense of their civil liberties.’’

For several days, hundreds of security forces have surrounded the sprawling Ampatuan compounds in Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital.

Troops raided a warehouse owned by the patriarch yesterday and recovered armored and military and police vehicles, M-16 assault rifles, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, said Colonel Leo Ferrer, a local army commander.

Security forces had earlier found mortar shells, light machine guns, assault rifles, and bazookas buried near the patriarch’s mansion, some of it marked as belonging to the police or military.