Political killings in the Philippines

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Authorities in the Philippines say they've discovered 11 more bodies in a mass grave on the island of Mindanao. That brings the death toll to 57 in what's thought to be a politically motivated massacre. The victims were driving in a convoy to register a local candidate for next year's elections when they were ambushed and shot. At least 18 journalists were among those killed. As Sunshine De Leon reports from Manila, the mass killings are raising questions about the state of democracy in the Philippines.

MAN: [speaking Tagalog].

SUNSHINE DE LEON: Every hour seems to bring news of another body being pulled from a shallow grave in Mindanao. It's being described as one of the worst massacres ever in the Philippines. Police, known as the PNP, say the investigation centers on a member of a powerful family that has long dominated politics in Maguindanao Province. The alleged suspect has ties to the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but Gregorio Larazebal, an election commissioner, says it's too early to draw conclusions about who was responsible.

GREGORIO LARAZEBAL: We don't want to preempt the investigation and we don't want to prejudge any individual or group, so we're just monitoring the reports by the Philippine National Police on the status of their investigation. And as soon as they come up with a report, we will then take appropriate action.

DE LEON: But many here, especially journalists, are skeptical justice will be done. Luis Teodoro is deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

LUIS TEODORO: The people who have been accused of perpetrating this bloodbath are allies of the administration.

DE LEON: Among the victims were 18 journalists. Teodoro says their deaths will have a chilling effect on the way that journalists cover future elections.

TEODORO: We're getting reports from Mindanao that a lot of journalists are already fearful, because this is now beyond much posturing, you know. A lot of journalists before this used to say, "Nah," but this is now real. What this shows is that the fact that you're a journalist doesn't give you any protection, not in this country.

DE LEON: Political violence in the Philippines is not uncommon, but even veteran elections commissioner Larazebal says he has never seen anything like this. There are reports that some of the victims were raped; others mutilated or shot at close range. He stresses that in the past, women and journalists were spared from political violence in this area.

LARAZEBAL: Candidates may shoot at each other, but it's usually limited to the male. And even the lawyers accompanied the group were women lawyers, specifically because everybody assumed that women wouldn't be harmed. Even members of media they went, because precisely, members of media are not harmed in those areas.

DE LEON: Still, Commissioner Larazebal says he is optimistic that fair elections can take place. He says the government is now working with the armed forces to institute a gun ban during the campaign. But Luis Teodoro says that this massacre shows that democracy itself is at risk.

TEODORO: We don't look at this as just an attack on journalists. It's an attack on what remains of Philippine democracy and on the electoral process and so on, because obviously the purpose was to prevent the filing of a certificate of candidacy and to retain power in Maguindanao. That's an attack on democracy.

DE LEON: Meanwhile, President Gloria Arroyo has imposed a state of emergency in two violence wracked southern provinces, and she's ordered more troops to the area ahead of next year's elections. Police say they will continue their investigation into the massacre, but few here believe that will resolve the crisis, or that those responsible will be brought to justice. For the world, I'm Sunshine De Leon in Manila.