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In Garcia-Esperat murder, a twisting path to justice

Esperat (CMFR)Five years ago today, a gunman strode into the home of muckraking Philippine journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat, pulled out a .45-caliber pistol, and shot her once in the head. A columnist and radio host on the southern island of Mindanao, Garcia-Esperat had made plenty of enemies while exposing government corruption.

Within a month, police arrested the suspected gunman and several accomplices who, in turn, accused two Department of Agriculture officials of ordering the murder. By the next year, three men were convicted of carrying out the murder, a landmark in the fight against impunity in the Philippines.

But Osmeña Montaner and Estrella Sabay, the two agriculture officials accused of masterminding the crime, not only remain free, they have, astonishingly, returned to their official duties. Arrest warrants have been issued against the two officials on multiple occasions but, thus far, the suspects have succeeded in quashing any effort to bring them to trial.

The case illustrates the entrenched culture of impunity in the Philippines, where at least 61 journalist murders have gone unpunished since 1992. CPJ is waging a Global Campaign Against Impunity, focusing particularly on the Philippines and Russia.

In this case, CPJ is working with Garcia-Esperat’s supporters and a coalition of Philippine press groups to see that justice is fully served. Below are some key dates in the twisting prosecution of the Garcia-Esperat murder.

March 24, 2005—Gunman shoots Garcia-Esperat at her Tacurong City home in front of her two sons before escaping on a motorcycle with the help of accomplices.

April 11, 2005—Police arrest Gerry Cabayag, Randy Grecia, Estanislao Bismanos and Rowie Barua for carrying out the murder. In testimony, Barua, a military officer, revealed regional agriculture department officials Osmeña Montaner and Estrella Sabay ordered him to hire the gunmen, according to CPJ research.

June 2005—Nena Santos, a private prosecutor working for the Esperat family, petitions to transfer the case from Tacurong to the more neutral city of Cebu in the central Philippines.

August, 31, 2005—One day before the case is to be moved to Cebu, the Tacurong court dismisses murder charges against the two officials, Montaner and Sabay. (See CPJ Alert.)

May 15, 2006—CPJ writes to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo urging the government to acknowledge the problem of impunity in journalist murders.

October 6, 2006—Cebu Regional Trial Court convicts assailants Cabayag, Grecia, and Bismanos of murder and gives each a minimum sentence of 30 years without parole (described as synonymous with a life sentence in the local media). Barua is acquitted. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales orders reinstatement of murder charges against Montañer and Sabay.

July 26, 2007—CPJ delegation in Manila meets with journalists and Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno to discuss how to combat impunity.

October 7, 2007The Road to Justice, a CPJ special report by Sheila Coronel and Elisabeth Witchel, details the case and ties it to the global scourge of impunity.

February 4 2008Cebu regional court issues arrest warrants against Montañer and Sabay.

March 21, 2008Cebu’s appeals court halts proceedings against Montañer and Sabay, disputing the regional court’s jurisdiction. (See CPJ report and CPJ letter to the Supreme Court Chief Justice).

October, 2008—Murder charges are refiled against Montaner and Sabay at the regional court in Tacurong. New arrest warrants are issued. (See CPJ report and blog).

February 2009—Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), a coalition of six media groups and a CPJ partner in the Global Campaign Against Impunity, requests a change in the location of the trial, from the Tacurong City Regional Trial Court to Makati City in the capital of Manila. (See CPJ Alert.)

March 23, 2009—CPJ launches the 2009 Global Impunity Index, listing countries which fail to prosecute journalist murders, in Manila. CPJ’s Elisabeth Witchel interviews Nena Santos.

March 2009—Suspects Montaner and Sabay file the first of two motions to quash the arrest warrants against them. The Tacurong court dismisses both, according to CPJ Alert and local news reports.

August 26, 2009—The Philippines Supreme Court grants FFFJ’s request to transfer the case from Tacurong City Regional Trial Court to Makati City. CPJ welcomes this decision.  

December 3, 2009An appellate court in Cagayan de Oro City, northern Mindanao, issues an injunction barring authorities from serving arrest warrants against Montañer and Sabay. (See CPJ blog)

February 18, 2010—Montaner and Sabay return to work at the Department of Agriculture in central Mindanao.

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