Esperat (CMFR)

Garcia-Esperat murder suspects back at work in Philippines

On the run for more than a calendar year from court-ordered arrest warrants, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, the alleged masterminds in the 2005 murder of Philippine investigative journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat, at left, are now out of hiding and back at work as senior Department of Agriculture finance officials, according to recent reports in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The two suspects returned to their positions soon after a December 3 Cagayan de Oro City Appeals Court ordered a preliminary injunction against the implementation of the arrest warrants issued by a lower Tacarong City court in October 2008. The private prosecution, acting on behalf of Esperat’s surviving two daughters, has submitted its response to the injunction and the court now awaits comment from the solicitor general’s office on the “propriety” of the arrest warrants, according to the reports.

The Philippine government had earlier formed and deployed a dedicated “tracker team” to locate and arrest Montañer and Sabay, but ultimately failed to secure the politically connected suspects. A senior Philippine police official charged with overseeing the tracker team told CPJ in July 2009 that he had received intelligence that both suspects had fled to an undisclosed location in neighboring Malaysia.

The injunction against Montañer’s and Sabay’s arrests and their return to high-level official positions in the government represents a clear setback to achieving swift justice in the landmark media killing case. Both have steadfastly maintained their innocence; Montaner recently told a Daily Inquirer reporter without elaborating that he and Sabay were “fall guys” in the case.

But with such clear-cut evidence gathered against them, many still hope that their convictions will set an important legal precedent towards breaking the cycle of impunity that has allowed so many media killings to go unpunished across the Philippines. Setting such a precedent against politically powerful suspects is especially crucial in the tragic wake of the November 23 Maguindanao massacre, in which 32 journalists and media workers were killed and the top suspect is an influential local mayor, Andal Ampatuan Jr.

Montañer and Sabay were implicated as the Esperat murder’s masterminds in testimony given by ex-military intelligence official Rowie Barua in May 2006 during the trial of the three assassins, each of whom was sentenced to lengthy jail terms for their roles in the targeted assassination. Barua claimed during his testimony that Montañer and Sabay had hired him to plan and orchestrate Esperat’s killing to silence her critical news reporting on Department of Agriculture corruption.

The two suspects have since argued through their lawyers that because they were acquitted as suspects in the earlier trial against the gunmen the new proceedings represent a violation of Philippine laws that protect against being tried for the same crime twice. Their legal defense has also challenged the legitimacy of appointed courts and judges, a strategy that resulted in the temporary stay order against their earlier issued arrest warrants.

Observers and advocates believe the drawn-out legal maneuvering has been purposefully designed by the defendants’ legal team to break the will of witnesses and finances of the plaintiffs—though so far there is no indication that the prosecution plans to relent in their pursuit of justice. 

But until the masterminds of the Esperat murder are successfully brought to justice, the message sent to other suspects in media killings—including the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre—is that justice can be delayed and that persistent legal maneuvering represents a potential way out.

(Reporting from Bangkok)