A key witness in the trial of a powerful Muslim clan accused of orchestrating the worst political massacre in the Philippines has been shot dead, a prosecutor said on Thursday.
The witness, Suwaib Upham, claimed to have taken part in the November killings of 57 people in a crime allegedly planned by his former employers, the Ampatuan clan. "He was supposed to be one of our strongest witnesses," prosecutor Harry Roque told AFP. "He saw, and participated in, the killings and could have directly named in court those involved."
Roque warned that Upham's killing, which he was told occurred last week in the southern province of Maguindanao, could potentially weaken the case against the Ampatuan family. US-based Human Rights Watch also said the killing raised doubts about the government's resolve in seeing justice done in the case.
"Massacre witnesses are dying while the government sits on its hands," the group's Asia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement. "This sends the worst possible message to other witnesses thinking of coming forward."
Roque said Upham had been talking to prosecutors in Manila since February, but went back to Maguindanao after the justice department did not act quickly on his request for protection.
"He went back to Maguindanao when it became apparent the witness protection programme would take a while to take him in," Roque said. His death comes two months after an uncle of another witness was also shot and killed, in what authorities said was part of a plan to intimidate those speaking out against the Ampatuan clan.
The clan, which has ruled Maguindanao with brutal efficiency for a decade, enjoyed political ties with outgoing President Gloria Arroyo, who used the family's huge private army as a force against separatist rebels.
Six clan members are among 196 people charged over the murders, allegedly carried out to prevent a member of a rival clan from running as governor of the province.
The main suspect, Andal Ampatuan Jnr, allegedly led about 100 armed militiamen who stopped the convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu and then summarily executed 57 people, including 30 journalists.
The closely watched trial has been mired in controversy, and has been suspended since April.
Justice Secretary Alberto Agra in April controversially dropped charges against two Ampatuan suspects, but was forced to reverse his decision after public outrage. The justice department then courted more criticism when it allowed the main suspect, Ampatuan Jnr, to hold a free-wheeling press conference inside his prison cell without handcuffs.
Roque said the court has not yet given prosecutors a definite timeline for the resumption of the trial.
"But justice needs to be served quickly in this case," he said. Roque said Upham's relatives had informed him that the witness had been killed by gunmen last week in Maguindanao.
It was not clear why police did not immediately report his killing to prosecutors, and no officials were immediately available for comment.