MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The Philippine government said Saturday it would drop murder charges against two prominent members of a powerful Muslim clan over the massacre of 57 people last year.
Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan, initially alleged to be two of the key planners of the election-linked killings in the restive south, will be dropped from the list of those accused, Justice Secretary Alberto Agra said.
"I just issued the resolution. I have already instructed the prosecutors to amend the charges to drop them against Zaldy and Akmad," Agra told AFP, although he said lawyers opposed to his decision could appeal in court.
The decision provoked outrage among the relatives' victims, who have repeatedly voiced concern that President Gloria Arroyo secretly intended to protect the Ampatuans because they were long-time political allies.
"This is evidence that the victims cannot get justice under the administration of President Arroyo," said human rights lawyer Harry Roque, who is representing some of the victims' families.
The prosecution in February charged that Zaldy, Akmad and other members of the Ampatuan clan conspired to murder a convoy of political rivals and journalists in Maguindanao province on November 23.
The murder, which shocked the world, was allegedly intended to prevent a rival from running against clan member Andal Ampatuan Jnr for the post of provincial governor in the May 10 national elections.
However Agra said that, after reviewing evidence, the initial decision to charge Zaldy and Akmad was flawed.
"There was no proof of conspiracy and there was a proof of an alibi," he said.
Agra cited airline tickets and cellphone records showing Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan were not in Maguindanao during the massacre as reasons for dropping the charges.
"There is no proof or any document that shows they were part of the planning. They (the prosecution) only had one witness against Zaldy and Akmad."
The Ampatuans are a powerful Muslim political clan that has long dominated politics in Maguindanao.
They were members of Arroyo's ruling coalition and delivered her crucial votes in the 2004 presidential election, but were expelled after the massacre.
Arroyo allowed them to run their own private army as part of a containment strategy against Muslim rebels in the south.
Zaldy Ampatuan had been governor of a Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines that encompasses Maguindanao at the time of the massacre. Akmad was the acting vice-governor of Maguindanao.
The patriarch of the clan and the then-governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan Snr, as well as his son and namesake, remain charged with murder.
Myra Reblando, widow of one of the murdered journalists, said she was not surprised by the decision to drop the charges.
"This is an indication there is no justice under Gloria Arroyo. She will protect the Ampatuans because she owes them," she said.
But Agra insisted he was only acting in accordance with the law.
"They are entitled to their opinion. I am just doing my job... my resolution is based only on the evidence before me, nothing else," he said.
It was not clear when Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan would be released from jail.
They, and the other Ampatuan members, were also charged with rebellion for allegedly trying to resist government efforts to bring the killers to justice.
A court last month dismissed those rebellion charges. But Agra said the government was seeking a motion of reconsideration with the same court.