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Court denies motion to dismiss charges against suspected masterminds in Esperat murder

(CMFR/IFEX) - On 7 April 2009, a local Philippine court denied a motion to dismiss murder charges against the alleged masterminds in the 2005 killing of Sultan Kudarat journalist Marlene Esperat. Sultan Kudarat is a province approximately 968 km south of Manila.

Judge Milanio Guerrero of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Tacurong City denied the motion filed by Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, the suspected masterminds in the Esperat murder case. The motion was submitted by their lawyer, Emmanuel Badoy, on 21 October 2008, immediately after the court issued an arrest warrant against them.

Montañer and Sabay are accused of masterminding Esperat's killing in 2005, after allegedly being angered by her exposés on corruption in the Department of Agriculture (DA). Montañer and Sabay worked in the DA as a finance officer and regional accountant, respectively. Esperat had filed a number of administrative cases against DA officials, including the two.

Esperat is among the 78 journalists or media practitioners killed in the line of duty in the Philippines since the restoration of democracy in 1986. She was killed at her home in front of her children on 24 March 2005. The gunmen were convicted of murder in 2006, but the alleged masterminds are still at large. No mastermind has been successfully prosecuted in any work-related killing of journalists in the Philippines since 2001.

Montañer and Sabay claimed in their motion that the case filed before the Tacurong RTC on 20 October 2008 was a "mere revival or re-opening of Criminal Case No. 2568, which was previously dismissed by the [Tacurong City] court in its order dated 31 August 2005."

In 2005, then Tacurong RTC Branch 20 judge Francis Palmones dismissed the murder charges against the two suspected masterminds for lack of evidence, effectively removing them from the list of those accused in Criminal Case No. 2568 against suspected killers Randy Grecia, Gerry Cabayag and Estanislao Bismanos. The case was later transferred to Cebu City following a November 2005 Supreme Court order. On 6 October 2006, Cebu City RTC Judge Eric Menchavez sentenced the three to reclusion perpetua (under the Philippines' Revised Penal Code, reclusion perpetua refers to imprisonment for at least 30 years).

Their lawyer also argued that since the previous case against Montañer and Sabay had been dismissed, the prosecution no longer had the right to file the same charges against them.

In its 7 April 2009 decision the court said, however, that the case was "not a revival of Criminal Case No. 2568." It explained that the dismissal of the criminal case against Montañer and Sabay in 2005 did not prejudice the filing of new charges against them. "New proceedings will be conducted as if the accused were charged with the crime of murder for the first time."

The court also agreed with the prosecution that "the criminal liability of the accused is not extinguished" by the prior dismissal.

Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) legal counsel Prima Quinsayas told CMFR that the decision removed any hindrance in the arrest of the two suspected masterminds. "[…] the case goes on. [The suspected masterminds] can no longer claim there is a motion to quash pending when the warrant of arrest is served [on them]."

FFFJ is a coalition of media organisations formed to address the killing of journalists. It is composed of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines), the Philippine Press Institute, the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which serves as its secretariat.

The Esperat family and FFFJ member organisations are awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on their request to change the venue of the case from Tacurong City to Makati City. The request was filed last February 2009.

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