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Court affirms ruling rejecting dismissal of case against alleged masterminds of journalist's murder

(CMFR/IFEX) - The Philippine press gained another victory in its fight against impunity after a local court in Sultan Kudarat affirmed its earlier denial of the motion to dismiss the case against the alleged masterminds in the killing of journalist Marlene Esperat. Sultan Kudarat is a province approximately 968 kilometres south of Manila.

In a 19 May 2009 resolution, Judge Milanio Guerrero of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 20 of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, denied the Motion for Reconsideration (MR) filed by Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay seeking the reversal of the 7 April order denying their motion for the dismissal of the case and the lifting of the arrest warrant against them for the murder of Esperat ("Motion to Quash with Motion for the Immediate Lifting of the Warrants of Arrest"). Montañer and Sabay, through lawyer Emmanuel Badoy, filed the motion for reconsideration on 12 April.

Esperat was killed on 24 March 2005 in her house in Tacurong City. Montañer and Sabay allegedly ordered the killing because of Esperat's exposés on allegedly anomalous transactions at the Department of Agriculture in Region XXII, where they were the Finance Officer and Regional Accountant, respectively.

Guerrero in his one-page resolution stated that the accused "(a)s correctly pointed out by the prosecution in its opposition (to the MR) . . . did not raise a new and substantial matter that would prompt the court to take a second look at its questioned order".

During the 13 May hearing, the prosecution argued that the accused's motion for reconsideration merely repeated the claims already answered in the court's 7 April order. One such claim was that the case filed on 20 October 2008 is a "revival . . . of Criminal Case No. 2568". Criminal Case No. 2568 pertains to the case against killers Randy Grecia, Gerry Cabayag and Estanislao Bismanos. Bismanos, Cabayag and Grecia were convicted in October 2006.

"The arguments therein are patently but a mere rehash of those stated in their original motion to quash and the supplement thereto, and which arguments had already been judiciously considered and appositely ruled upon by the court in its order of April 7, 2009," the prosecution said in its 13 May opposition to the MR.

The prosecution also pointed out that Montañer and Sabay's counsel even copied the exact words in the denied motion to quash, in his motion for reconsideration.

Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) legal adviser Prima Jesusa Quinsayas said the arrest of the accused is "the next ideal legal development". Quinsayas joined the prosecution panel last 13 May as a collaborating private prosecutor for the Esperat family.

FFFJ is a coalition of six media organizations formed in 2003 to address the escalating number of killing of and attacks against journalists. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility serves as the secretariat, and is a founding member, of FFFJ.

"What we want is for the two accused to be arrested so that they can be arraigned . . . This means the proverbial ball is now in the Philippine National Police's Task Force Usig's court," Quinsayas said.

Seven months after the court issued (on 21 October 2008) the warrant against them, Montañer and Sabay are still at large. The national government is now offering monetary rewards for their capture - P500,000 (approx. US$10,629) each.

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