Seeking justice for Marlene Garcia-Esperat

Today CPJ launched its 2009 Global Impunity Index in Manila to mark the fourth anniversary of the murder of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, left, a Philippine columnist who reported on corruption in the government’s agriculture department. Garcia-Esperat was gunned down in her home in front of her family in a case that has become emblematic of the struggle against impunity. Two government officials are accused of ordering her murder. CPJ’s Elisabeth Witchel interviewed Philippine attorney Nena Santos, a private prosecutor representing the Esperat children.

Elisabeth Witchel: Is it true you knew Marlene? Can you tell me a little about how you came to represent the family?

Nena Santos: Prior to her death she was an old friend. I am godmother to her two children and we were in contact with each other often. She would ask about what she was investigating.

EW: When did you step in?

NS: Immediately after [the shooting] I got a call from her daughter. She said her mother was shot. I assisted in the investigation, helping prepare the evidence and talking to the CID [Criminal Investigative Division] of the PNP [Philippines National Police] about who are the suspects.

I should point out one thing. In the Philippines you can hire attorneys to help the prosecutor. The role of private prosecutors in obtaining justice is unique in the Philippines. We are allowed to assist the government prosecution of the case in several areas.

EW: What are some the obstacles the prosecution of this case has faced?

NS: For the assassins, we were able to proceed at a fast pace and succeeded in convictions in six months. But in the cases of the masterminds, we’ve encountered legal maneuvering on the side of the accused.  Generally, if the evidence is strong, the accused will use all legal means possible to avoid prosecution. 

EW: What is your biggest concern about the case?

NS: These delays will work in the favor of the accused. We have witnesses who are old and sickly. If the witnesses are exhausted and tired of waiting; if they are influenced by the accused or die ahead of the prosecution it will weaken he case.

EW: Why do you think Marlene was killed?

NS: To silence Marlene. She was an insider. She knew a lot of information and had evidence of irregularities in the Department of Agriculture.

EW: If the masterminds are convicted, this will be landmark case. How do you think you will feel?

NS: We will feel that justice was served and that Marlene’s death will be vindicated. This is the only case where there could be the prosecution of a mastermind. This would set the bar for other killings in the Philippines and around the world.