Philippine Supreme Court should intervene in murder case

May 23, 2008

Hon. Reynato S. Puno
Chief Justice
Supreme Court of the Philippines
Manila, Philippines

Via facsimile: +63-2-526-8129

Dear Chief Justice Puno,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the recent ruling of a Cebu Court of Appeals to indefinitely suspend the murder trial of journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat. The two suspects, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, face allegations of plotting the March 24, 2005, murder.

CPJ views the prosecution of this case as crucial to breaking the culture of impunity surrounding the killing of journalists in the Philippines, while reaffirming the Philippine judiciary’s constitutional commitment to uphold and defend press freedom. We call on the Supreme Court to intervene in a swift and appropriate manner to ensure that this important trial is allowed to proceed.

As you are aware, the assassins in the case were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on October 6, 2006. Your court’s resolution on November 23, 2005, to approve the transfer of that case from Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat province, where the murder occurred, to the Cebu City Regional Trial Court guaranteed the safety of witnesses and prosecution lawyers and, in our estimation, was essential in obtaining the landmark convictions.

Yet justice has still not been fully served in this heinous crime. On May 14, the Cebu Court of Appeals handed down a preliminary injunction barring the Cebu Regional Trial Court from hearing the case against Montañer and Sabay on grounds that the lower trial court lacked jurisdiction in the case.

The ruling cited an April 3 comment by the Office of the Solicitor General, which said the Supreme Court’s transfer of venue order applied only to the assassins’ case, and was not binding in what it apparently deemed as a separate case against Montañer and Sabay. The Appeals Court ruling followed its March 25 decision to grant the two suspects’ request for a 60-day temporary restraining order and to revoke the arrest warrants pending since February 4 against the two suspects.

Your Honor, allow me the opportunity to reiterate CPJ’s previously stated concerns that if the case against the two alleged masterminds is returned to their home province–as they have requested in the past–the trial may be unduly influenced by local politics while prosecution witnesses and lawyers are unnecessarily put at risk.

The issuance of a declaratory resolution from the Supreme Court, which clearly establishes that its original change of venue order in the assassins’ case now also applies to the Montañer and Sabay case, would pave the way for the immediate resumption of this important trial. More broadly, it would send a resolute signal to all concerned of your court’s commitment to protecting journalists and press freedom.


Joel Simon
Executive Director