In Philippines, ex-police officer convicted in Damalerio murder

New York, November 29, 2005
— The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes today’s conviction of former police officer Guillermo Wapile in the 2002 murder of journalist Edgar Damalerio in Pagadian City. Judge Ramon Codilla of the Cebu Regional Trial Court sentenced Wapile to life imprisonment.

“Today’s ruling is a significant step for press freedom in the Philippines and a testament to the bravery of Edgar Damalerio’s widow, Gemma, and the lone surviving witness, Edgar Ongue,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We are relieved to see justice served in what should be a landmark case, but there is much work to be done to ensure the safety of the Philippine press. Still unresolved are 21 other cases of journalists murdered since 2000.”

A courtroom filled with the slain journalist’s supporters erupted in applause as the 10-page verdict, long awaited, was read this afternoon, the Cebu-based daily Sun Star reported. Gemma Damalerio told CPJ that she was “very happy” with the verdict, and she thanked press groups for their efforts to secure justice for her husband.

Today’s ruling marked an end to a lengthy—and lethal—battle for justice. Damalerio, managing editor of the Mindanao Scribe and radio commentator of DXKP in Pagadian City, was an award-winning journalist known for exposing police corruption. A motorcycle-riding assassin killed Damalerio in May 2002 as he was riding in his jeep with Ongue and another friend, Edgar Amoro. Former police officer Wapile was charged with the murder in January 2003, but he remained at large until September 2004.

Ongue identified Wapile as the gunman, testimony that proved pivotal because the defense was unable to refute the eyewitness account, the news Web site ABS-CBN reported.

Two other witnesses to Damalerio’s murder were slain before the case was heard. Three unidentified assailants gunned down Amoro in February outside the high school in Zamboanga where he worked as a teacher. He had been scheduled to testify in the trial. Jury Lovitaño, a second potential witness, was killed in an ambush in August 2002.

Following Amoro’s murder, Gemma Damalerio petitioned to move the trial from Pagadian City on the southern island of Mindanao to the central city of Cebu in an effort to ensure a fair hearing. The Supreme Court granted the venue change on February 14, and the trial opened in June. In an interview with CPJ that month, Ongue said that he was willing to risk his life to testify because he wanted “to show that it’s not right just to kill anyone and then get away with it.”

Wapile’s lawyers said they would appeal the verdict within the 15-day deadline, according to local journalists.

According to CPJ research, today’s verdict was the first court conviction in a case of a journalist murdered since a record-setting wave of attacks began in 2000. In May, CPJ cited the Philippines as the “most murderous” country for journalists in the world, with 22 targeted and killed since 2000. A CPJ delegation traveled around the country in June to investigate the root causes of violence against the press. Read the special report from the mission, “On the Air, Under the Gun,”