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Philippine massacre trial expected to drag on

By Maggie Leung, CNN
Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. is pictured in his cell in Manila before a court appearance in January.
Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. is pictured in his cell in Manila before a court appearance in January.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are 196 accused, about 500 witnesses and more than 11,000 murder charges
  • The massacre is consider the worst politically motivated killings in recent Philippine history
  • A powerful family is accused in the deaths of a political candidate's family members
  • Dozens of journalists who were part of a convoy also were allegedly ambushed
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(CNN) -- Even if a landmark murder trial starts Wednesday in the Philippines, the accused might well die of old age before the case ends, a lawyer said.

There are 196 accused, about 500 witnesses and more than 11,000 murder charges involved in the case of the worst politically motivated killings in recent Philippine history, said attorney Harry Roque. He represents the survivors of 14 massacre victims.

The mayor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan Jr., and his alleged accomplices are to stand trial in the November 2009 massacre in Maguindanao.

Andal Ampatuan Sr. -- the former provincial governor and the father of Ampatuan Jr. -- also has been charged in the killings.

An investigation has revealed a well-planned conspiracy, in which members of the Philippine police and army also were involved, said an eight-member commission of the justice department. Yet dozens of the 196 suspects remain at large, Roque said.

"It's the job of the police to arrest them. But we all know the calibre of the police. That is part of the problem," he said, adding that the Ampatuan family still controls Maguindanao. "People who were supposed to protect the people became the murderers."

The wife and sister of political candidate Ismael "Toto" Mangudadatu and 30 journalists were among the 57 victims killed there.

Mangudadatu had sent his family members to file paperwork allowing him to run for governor of Maguindanao.

Their convoy was ambushed, allegedly by the Ampatuans and their associates.

The 57 bodies were recovered -- some had been shot assassination-style, and others died when their vehicles were sprayed with bullets.

At least one witness also has been killed since the massacre, Roque said. Searches also continue for the remains of several other suspected victims.

The massacre shocked people even in a country that is familiar with election violence.

The trial of Ampatuan Jr. and his alleged accomplices has been delayed repeatedly, most recently because of a defense request for more preparation time. The delays have prompted outcries against the political influence of the Ampatuan family. They have ruled Maguindanao for decades.

There is a push for the Philippine supreme court to create a separate court to hear only the massacre case, given how much ground there is to cover. Roque is hopeful that the executive and judiciary branches of government, with something to prove, will seriously consider such a court.

As for the chances that Wednesday's hearing will lead to the start of the trial, "it's 50-50," he said. "It's frustrating," because 196 defendants means myriad defense lawyers who can drag out the case.

In the months that have passed since the massacre, the survivors of the victims have bonded in Maguindanao. On Wednesday, whether or not the trial actually starts, five of those survivors will appear in court and represent the others.

With the Philippines made up of hundreds of islands, the trip to the hearing in Manila isn't easy, especially because many family breadwinners were killed in the massacre.

Maguindanao is part of an autonomous region in predominantly Muslim Mindanao, which was set up in the 1990s to quell armed uprisings by people seeking an independent Muslim homeland in the predominantly Christian Asian nation.