MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The patriarch of a powerful clan pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he masterminded the 2009 massacre of at least 57 political opponents and journalists in the Philippines' worst election-related killings.
Andal Ampatuan Sr. was arraigned in a special court inside a Manila maximum-security prison, 18 months after he and a dozen family members were arrested over the killings in the southern province of Maguindanao that shook a country accustomed to political violence.
Ampatuan's son, former Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., is accused of leading about 150 gunmen with his father's approval in stopping an election caravan and allegedly mowing down the family and supporters of their political rival. Most of the victims were women and included at least 31 journalists and their staff, the single worst killing of media workers in the world.
A total of 196 people have been charged with multiple murder, 88 of whom are in custody, and 57 have been arraigned. More than 50 others are still at large.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. and the others previously have pleaded not guilty.
The International Federation of Journalists said Wednesday's arraignment was "an important milestone."
"We can only hope that the trial continues to progress from this point on for the sake of the victims' families," said the federation's Asia-Pacific director, Jacqueline Park.
After a court clerk read the names of the 57 victims, 70-year-old Andal Ampatuan Sr., dressed in a yellow detainee shirt and black slacks, was asked to enter a plea and responded in English, "Not guilty."
About two dozen victims' relatives seated in the courtroom jeered, prompting Judge Jocelyn Reyes to issue a warning to keep quiet.
Juliet Evardo, whose 24-year-old son Julito was an editor of local TV station UNTV, said that she expected an innocent plea from the Ampatuans. "We knew that they will not admit that they murdered those people."
Still, she said, "We have been waiting for a long time for him to be arraigned."
The brazenness and brutality of the massacre exposed the abuse of power and impunity with which powerful clans have lorded over impoverished, restive regions where they allegedly buy votes, intimidate and eliminate opponents while relying on protection from their political patrons.
The Ampatuans held key posts in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines and named towns after their family members. They delivered the winning votes for their ally, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and her candidates in national elections.
After the killings, Arroyo cut ties and cracked down on the Ampatuans. The new president, Benigno Aquino III, promised that his administration would deliver justice and fix the system that allows political warlords to tap private armies and government-armed militia to run their fiefdoms.
Victims' kin have criticized the slow pace of the trial and many fear the wealth and influence of the Ampatuans will allow them to manipulate the outcome.
Ampatuan's servant, Lakmudin Saliao, has testified in court that six days before the Nov. 23, 2009, massacre, the patriarch gathered his siblings over dinner to ask how they could stop their political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu, from running for governor.
According to Saliao, Ampatuan Jr. said "If they come here, just kill them all." His father allegedly agreed and ordered that Mangudadatu should be stopped on a highway where he was supposed to pass on the way to file his candidacy papers.
Mangudadatu, who was later elected governor, sent his wife, sisters and other female relatives accompanied by journalists in the belief that women would not be harmed.
On the day of the crime, Saliao said Ampatuan Jr. told his father by cellphone — its loudspeaker on — that he had blocked the convoy. The father ordered him to gun down everybody but spare the media, to which Ampatuan Jr. replied, "No ... somebody could talk if we won't wipe out everybody."
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.