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Suspects behind killing of journalist Marlene Esperat elude arrest

(CMFR/IFEX) - Two government officials suspected to be the intellectual authors of the killing of a journalist in 2004 have eluded arrest despite three week-old warrants for their arrest.

Cebu City Regional Trial Court Branch 7 Judge Simeon Dumdum issued arrest warrants to the Cotabato City police on 4 February 2008 for the arrest of Estrella Sabay and Osmeña Montaner, who work for the Department of Agriculture Region 12 office as finance officer and regional accountant, respectively.

Sabay and Montaner are suspected to have masterminded the killing of radio "blocktimer" and newspaper columnist Marlene Esperat in 2005. Montaner and Sabay reside in Cotabato. Cebu, where the three killers of Esperat were tried and convicted, is a province approximately 562 kilometres south of Manila, while Cotabato is a province about 950 kilometres south of Manila.

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.

Police Chief Superintended Joel Goltiao, of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindano, said that his staff tried to serve the arrest warrants in the suspects' residences in Cotabato but failed because they were no longer there. Cotabato is the regional capital of Mindanao. Goltiao also said that relatives of Montaner and Sabay told arresting officers that they did not know where the two are.

"Montaner and Sabay's relatives have no idea if they are abroad or are still in the country. We cannot find them in our jurisdiction," Goltiao told the national newspaper "Philippine Daily Inquirer".

Meanwhile, Superintendent Norberto Batislaong, of the Region 12 Task Force Usig secretariat, said that the police are already engaged in an "aggressive manhunt" for the two suspects and that finding them at the top of their "priority list".

Lawyer Nena Santos, a private prosecutor for the case, said that she had expected the police to have difficulties in locating the suspects. "We knew that the suspects would be hard to arrest, so we hope the police will make a more earnest effort in apprehending them," Santos said.

The suspects have filed a motion to the Court of Appeals on 4 February 2008 asking for a temporary restraining order and a writ of injunction to restrain Judge Dumdum from proceeding with the case.

On 18 February, in Cebu RTC Branch 7, the judge denied a motion filed by the defendants which sought to halt the serving of arrest warrants against them. In the same decision, the judge also denied a motion by Sabay and Montaner that sought to quash the charges filed against them by the state prosecutor.

Updates the Esperat case: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/90919

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