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Suspect in 2004 killing of journalist surrenders as witness retracts testimony

(CMFR/IFEX) - The suspect in the 2004 killing of radio broadcaster Herson Hinolan surrendered on 5 March 2008 to the Kalibo Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 7 in Aklan, after a key witness retracted his earlier testimony against the suspect. Aklan is approximately 345 km south of Manila.

Alfredo Arcenio, former mayor of Lezo town in Aklan, surrendered to Kalibo RTC Branch 7 Judge Virgilio Paman at around 3:10 p.m. (local time), said Aklan regional police director Supt. Benigno Durana Jr.

Durana said Paman informed the police of Arcenio's surrender and has asked for additional security personnel. Arcenio was immediately turned over to the Aklan Rehabilitation Center, the local penal facility.

Hinolan was shot on 13 November 2004 outside a local carnival. Witnesses allege Arcenio did the shooting and fled on board a motorcycle driven by another man. Two days later, Hinolan died at a local hospital due to multiple gunshot wounds. Hinolan was the station manager of Bombo Radyo Kalibo where he hosted a program called "Bombohanay."

Durana said the police had been receiving unconfirmed reports that Arcenio would turn himself in a few days before the surrender. Arcenio had been free despite an arrest warrant issued by the local court against him on 7 September 2006. Arcenio, who was a former intelligence officer of the Army, had supposedly disguised himself as a woman. The Philippine National Police offered a reward of P100, 000 (approximately US$2,465) for his arrest, while the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a hold departure order against him to prevent him from leaving the country.

Arcenio, who was accompanied by his lawyer Lou Tirol, immediately filed a petition for bail before the local court. The court will hear the petition on 7 March 2008. Though Arcenio is charged with a capital offence, bail could be granted if evidence against him is weak.

Arcenio's surrender was preceded by the retraction of testimony by witness Peter Melgar, who submitted an affidavit of desistance in February, withdrawing the statement he gave in 2004 identifying Arcenio as the gunman.

Bombo Radyo Kalibo station manager Jan Allen Ascaño said that Melgar stated in his retraction that he was not sure that it was Arcenio who shot Hinolan. After almost four years, Melgar claims that it was a case of mistaken identity.

"I feel bad with what's happening to this case", Aphrodite Hinolan, wife of Herson Hinolan, said. She said Arcenio could have paid off Melgar to retract his statement. Melgar has left the DOJ Witness Protection Program, Hinolan said.

Senior state prosecutor Leo Dacera of the DOJ's Witness Protection Program said the DOJ lost contact with Melgar in February. The last time the DOJ had any contact with Melgar was when he claimed his subsistence allowance from the Witness Protection Program.

Lawyer Napoleon Oducado, private counsel in the Hinolan case, said in an interview with Bombo Radyo Kalibo that the case against Arcenio remains strong despite Melgar's retraction because there is another eyewitness who identified Arcenio as the shooter.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), a coalition of six media organizations formed in response to the rising tide of journalist killings, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines filed a petition for a change of venue on February 2008 for the case of Hinolan and another Aklan-based reporter, Rolando Ureta.

The petition for a change of venue was filed in response to the reluctance of prosecution witnesses to come forward because of the clout and influence of the accused in the area. The safety of the complainants and the witnesses could also be compromised if the trial is held in Aklan. The FFFJ members are the Center for Community Journalism and Development, CMFR, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Philippine Press Institute, and the US-based newspaper Philippine News.

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