MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine governor said that his political rival and the main suspect in the 2009 election-related killings of 57 people tried to kill him and his brothers months before the massacre, calling him "powerful, influential and violent."
Esmael Mangudadatu, governor of southern Maguindanao province, testified Thursday at the massacre trial that his predecessor, then-Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., had sent hundreds of government soldiers, police and civilian militia to attack his brother's residence in the restive region. About four months after the failed attack, Ampatuan allegedly ordered gunmen to kill 57 people, including Mangudadatu's wife, who were en route to contest local elections.
Ampatuan, his sons and alleged gunmen are among 103 suspects in the long-running trial, the largest in recent Philippine history. They have denied the murder charges.
Mangudadatu's wife, relatives and supporters, along with 31 media workers, were killed Nov. 23, 2009, after they were stopped on a highway by suspected armed followers of Ampatuan, mowed down and buried in mass graves.
Mangudadatu, who was elected governor in 2010, testified that he and another brother rushed to their sibling's residence after it was surrounded by gunmen and armored trucks. He said he prevented the attack by persuading the gunmen, who were led by a distant relative of Mangudadatu, to withdraw.
"I pleaded with him not to kill us. He said, 'This is the order of Andal Ampatuan Sr.,'" Mangudadatu said.
Prima Jesusa Quinsayas, a lawyer representing the victims at the trial, said Mangudadatu's testimony showed that the Ampatuan clan intended to harm Mangudadatu leading up to the 2009 massacre.
Mangudadatu described the Ampatuans as "powerful, influential and violent."
He said their influence was so pervasive that they controlled the military and police in the impoverished province and could even determine the outcome of elections "down to the village chairman."
Election violence in the Philippines is rampant, especially in far-flung provinces, and the national government has been unwilling or unable to disarm private armies loyal to political warlords. In the southern Philippines, insecurity and lawlessness are exacerbated by a long-running Muslim rebellion and the proliferation of firearms.
The bloodshed usually involves entire clans since political power is shared among family members, who offer each other support and protection.
Mangudadatu said that on the day of the massacre, his wife told him by cellphone that she and others had been stopped by armed men and that she was slapped by Ampatuan's son, Andal Jr.
He said he saw his wife's body the next day in a morgue. She had been stabbed in the back and had gunshot wounds in different parts of her body, including her breasts and genitals, he said.
"I was thinking how they could have been crying out, pleading for pity," he said. "It hurts. I want to remove that from my memory."
On Thursday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that the government wants to speed up the trial — which started two and a half years ago — calling it a "blot in our Philippine judicial system." He asked the Supreme Court to find a way to expedite the proceedings without sacrificing justice.
About 60 main witnesses have testified so far at the trial. About 100 suspects are still at large.
Prosecutors say at least six witnesses, potential witnesses and their relatives have been killed since the trial started in an attempt to suppress testimony.
Lacierda said the witnesses who were killed had refused police protection.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.