Manila: The head of a powerful Philippine clan pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to murdering 57 foes and journalists in his first court appearance on charges of masterminding the country`s worst political massacre.
Wearing a yellow prison shirt and closely guarded by police commandos, 70-year-old Andal Ampatuan Snr stood silently as more than two dozen relatives of the victims stared at him from across the courtroom.
He nodded when asked if he understood the charges read out to him, as regional trial court judge Jocelyn Reyes ordered the trial to proceed after denying his last-minute appeal to delay proceedings.
"Not guilty," Ampatuan muttered to jeers from emotional relatives of the victims, who packed the small room.
The Muslim clan patriarch, his son and namesake Andal Ampatuan Jnr, and four other relatives are among more than 80 people arrested and charged with murder over the November 23, 2009 massacre of 57 people, 32 of whom were journalists.
More than a hundred other suspects, including Ampatuan relatives and members of a government-armed militia that worked under the family`s direct command, remain at large.
The court has yet to read the charges against 21 of those in custody, and legal experts had earlier warned the trial would stretch for years in the notoriously slow Philippine justice system.
The victims and some of their vehicles were found buried in mass graves in a deserted farm on a hillock, near an abandoned excavator that bore the Ampatuan patriarch`s name.
One former close aide to Ampatuan turned prosecution witness, Lakmudin Saliao, earlier testified that he was with members of the clan when they planned the killing over dinner six days beforehand.
Saliao said the patriarch then told the group to make sure the murders were carried out carefully.
Forensics experts, police and the relatives have alleged some of the women victims were raped and had their sex organs mutilated.
The Ampatuans, who had ruled the province for a decade, are alleged to have ordered followers to commit the murders to stop a rival from challenging Andal Ampatuan Jnr for the post of Maguindanao governor in last year`s elections.
On Wednesday relatives of the victims crowded into the courthouse -- built in a suburban Manila jail compound specifically for the massacre trial -- and cried and shouted as Ampatuan Snr was ushered into the courtroom in handcuffs.
Juliet Evardo, 50, mother of one of the journalist victims, cried during a court-ordered break in the hearing as she recounted to AFP how she felt when she saw him.
"How can he plead not guilty when the backhoe (excavator) bore his name?" Evardo said.
Evardo`s 24-year-old son, Julito, was a television editor who defied her appeals not to join the Mangudadatu supporters and relatives on their ill-fated convoy to submit his candidacy papers to the local election watchdog.
Esmael Mangudadatu, the rival Maguindanao politician who was elected governor following the massacre, expressed satisfaction that his wife, sister and other relatives who were among the victims, would finally get justice.
"I hope that this event will speed up the (judicial) process," Mangudadatu said.
The Ampatuans had ruled Maguindanao province for a decade under the patronage of former president Gloria Arroyo, who rights monitors said allowed the clan to keep a large private army as a proxy force against Muslim rebels.
Mangudadatu meanwhile said members of the Ampatuan private army who were among those at large were continuing to harass witnesses, including one man who he said was shot and a woman they allegedly raped.
"They (the two witnesses who were allegedly attacked) are now out of danger and will continue to testify. But this illustrates the lingering power of the clan," he said.