March 28, 2008
The Honorable Reynato Puno
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the Philippines
Via facsimile: +63-2-526-8129
Dear Chief Justice Puno,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about recent maneuvers to delay the ongoing murder trial of journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat. As you are aware, the assassins in this case, Estanislao Bismanos, Gerry Cabayag, and Randy Grecia, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on October 6, 2006.
Crucial to those landmark convictions was your court's resolution on November 23, 2005, to approve the transfer of the case from where the murder occurred, Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat province, to Cebu City Regional Trial Court, considered by the prosecution to be a more neutral and safer setting for the trial.
Now the two suspected masterminds of that heinous crime, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, stand trial for their roles in ordering Garcia-Esperat's shooting, which was carried out at her home and in the view of her two small children on March 24, 2005. The two defendants have recently challenged the legality of their case's change of venue to Cebu City through a petition of certiorari, which they filed to the higher Cebu Court of Appeals on February 4.
The appeals court has yet to issue a resolution on their request, but earlier this week did order a 60-day temporary restraining order, which delays the trial, for the two suspects. Both Montañer and Sabay have defied arrest warrants ordered by the presiding Cebu City Regional Trial Court judge, which were issued on the same day that the two suspects filed their certiorari petition. Their whereabouts are unknown to police, local news outlets report.
CPJ strongly echoes the request made by the case's private prosecutor, Nena Santos, in her March 24 letter to the Supreme Court for a declaratory resolution to its original order to change the venue of the murder trial. We endorse her call for the court to clarify that the order not only applied to the convicted assassins but also specifically to Montañer and Sabay.
Initial charges filed in the Tacurong City trial court against the two murder suspects were dropped before the prosecution had even presented its evidence. Our concern is that if the case against the two alleged masterminds is returned to their home province--as requested through their petition--the trial may be unduly influenced by local politics while prosecution witnesses and lawyers are unnecessarily put at risk for their own safety.
CPJ is heartened by the strong support you personally expressed during your speech at last conference in Manila on Impunity and Press Freedom. During your thoughtful keynote address on February 27, you said, "Unless and until we do something to submerge this pernicious culture, these attacks [against the press] will continue to litter our collective consciousness with the corpses of people who are bearers of truth."
CPJ welcomes your assertion. We believe a Supreme Court resolution reaffirming its previous decision to change the trial venue for Marlene Garcia-Esperat's murder to a more neutral setting would be a positive step towards breaking the culture of impunity to which you alluded.