CPJ welcomes Supreme Court decision to move murder trial venue

New York, December 9, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the Philippine Supreme Court’s ruling ordering the transfer of venue in the murder trial of columnist Marlene Esperat-Garcia from the city of Tacurong on the southern island of Mindanao to the central city of Cebu.

The High Court’s November 23 decision, which was made public yesterday, said that the change of venue was necessary because of undue influence wielded on the court proceedings by Osmeña Montañer, a local official from the Mindanao Department of Agriculture who is one of the accused masterminds in Esperat-Garcia’s murder.

“It is encouraging to see some progress in this important case,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “The court’s decision is a blow to the culture of impunity in the Philippines, and we hope it will clear the way for a free and fair trial in the murder of Marlene Esperat-Garcia.”

Esperat-Garcia, a whistle-blowing columnist who exposed corruption in the weekly Midland Review, was under police protection at the time of her murder following death threats. On March 24, she let her police escorts leave early for the Easter holiday. Soon after, a gunman walked into her home and shot and killed her in front of her children. The murder shocked the country and international press freedom advocates.

On April 11, police announced the arrest of four suspects, including an army sergeant. According to the Esperat-Garcia family attorney Nena Santos, the four confessed their involvement in May, and are now scheduled to go on trial in January 2006. Santos filed a petition to transfer the venue of the trial in June.

The court ordered the four suspects transferred from Tacurong to prison in Cebu.

Newspapers had reported allegations that two officials from the Mindanao Department of Agriculture, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, plotted Garcia-Esperat’s murder. The officials denied the accusations, but one of the defendants, Randy Barua, a former bodyguard for Sabay, told police that he hired the gunmen at the behest of Montañer and Sabay, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported. Esperat-Garcia had reported on allegations of corruption at the Department of Agriculture.

Murder charges were brought against the two officials, but a judge dismissed them on August 31 because of what he termed insufficient and conflicting evidence. Santos told the Manila Standard that the dismissal was “highly questionable and suspicious,” and that it was a “miscarriage of justice.” Santos said the judge made the decision the day before being transferred to another court, and the court clerk did not announce the ruling until September 20.

Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño and a panel of state prosecutors are seeking a reversal of the judge’s dismissal of the murder charges against Montañer and Sabay, the Manila Standard reported.

The Supreme Court’s decision came one week before the November 29 landmark conviction of former police officer Guillermo Wapile in the 2002 murder of journalist Edgar Damalerio whose trial was also transferred from Pagadian City in Mindanao to Cebu. To read more about the Damalerio verdict, click here: http://www.cpj.org/news/2005/Phil29nov05na.html