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Judge upholds court's jurisdiction over Esperat murder case

(CMFR/IFEX) - A Cebu City Regional Trial Court (RTC) judge denied on 18 February 2008 a motion by two defendants accused of masterminding the murder of journalist Marlene Esperat. The motion sought to quash the charges filed by the state prosecutor against them on 1 February 2008. Cebu is a province located approximately 562 km south of Manila.

Defendants Estrella Sabay and Osmeña Montaner, accused of masterminding the Esperat killing, are the Region 12 Finance Officer and Regional Accountant, respectively, of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

Esperat, who wrote exposés accusing Montaner and Sabay of corruption, was killed on 24 March 2005 in full view of her children while the family was having dinner in their Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat residence.

The defendants' motion argued that the Cebu City RTC has no jurisdiction over the case because the murder happened in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat. But in a seven-page decision, Cebu RTC Branch 7 Judge Simeon Dumdum Jr. ruled that the Cebu City RTC has jurisdiction over the case as stated in a 23 November 2005 Supreme Court resolution.

The High Tribunal's resolution ordered the transfer of the Esperat murder case from the Tacurong City RTC Branch 20 to the Cebu City RTC in response to a petition by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ). The FFFJ requested the change of venue, citing safety concerns for the victims and the need for a more neutral court.

Dumdum said that the case "against Sabay and Montaner is but a continuation of the proceedings, of which Crim. Case No. 2568 was just the first part, relative to the murder of Marlene Esperat. The Supreme Court has directed the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City to conduct the proceedings. The latter continues to have jurisdiction over the case."

Criminal Case No. 2568 pertains to the case against Randy Grecia, Gerry Cabayag and Estanislao Bismanos. The three were convicted by Cebu City RTC Judge Eric Menchavez on 6 October 2006 through the help of the testimony of suspect-turned-state witness Rowie Barua.

Dumdum, in the same decision, also denied the motion filed by the defendants which sought to halt the serving of arrest warrants on them.

A private lawyer for the prosecution, Nena Santos, described the decision as a "welcome development".

Santos said that she will request that the Department of Justice issue a "hold departure order" on Montaner and Sabay and that the Court order the Philippine National Police to immediately arrest the two suspects.

Seventy journalists and media practitioners have been killed in the line of duty since 1986. No mastermind has ever been successfully prosecuted in any of the cases.

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