24 June 2005
RSF denounces tampering and lack of progress in Marlene Esperat murder investigation
(RSF/IFEX) - RSF is worried about recent developments in the murder investigation of journalist and anti-corruption activist Marlene Esperat. Neither of the suspected organisers of the killing has been arrested and the Justice Department has given responsibility of the inquiry to Prosecutor Tukod Ronda, a relative of one of the organisers.
"This is not the right time to restart the investigation from scratch but rather to step up the search in the hunt for all the instigators. Even more so since the new prosecutor heading the case is known for collusion with the suspects, Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay, two former agriculture department officials, who are in hiding," said RSF. "The Department of Justice should withdraw the file from Prosecutor Tukod Ronda, whose impartiality is clearly not guaranteed."
Moreover, RSF would like the Supreme Court to consider transferring the case to Cebu to avoid local interference.
On 24 June 2005, lawyer Nena A. Santos was expected to lodge a legal injunction to prevent the opening of a new preliminary investigation by Prosecutor Ronda, in Cotabato (Mindanao Island). On 17 May, prosecutor Nestor Lazaro wound up his investigation by concluding - on the basis of a confession by one of the killers - that Montaner and Sabay were implicated in the journalist's murder.
Santos told RSF that the appointment of a new prosecutor was "gross interference" that raised the spectre of an "unknown hand" at the Justice Department. Ronda was appointed despite the fact he is a relative of Montaner. He personally accompanied a lawyer for the two suspects, on 6 May in Manila, to lodge a written statement at the Justice Department contesting the conclusions of the preliminary investigation.
According to Santos, the two suspects, whom Esperat accused of corruption on several occasions, have been trying every possible means, including bribing officials, to get the charges and arrest warrants against them dismissed.
Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez denied all possibility of corruption within the Department of Justice. Last April, he promised RSF's representatives that the ministry would fully cooperate with the investigation into the Esperat murder.
The police have not managed to question Montaner and Sabay, nearly one month after obtaining arrest warrants against them. A member of the team of hit men, Sergeant Rowie Barua, told investigators that the two former Agriculture Department officials in Cotabato ordered the killing. The soldier, who is currently being held with three other suspects, had been a bodyguard for Sabay.
Last May, after meeting members of Esperat's family, President Gloria Arroyo ordered the capture of the organisers of her murder. She also announced the creation of a 5 million peso (approx. US$90,000) fund to help the families of murdered journalists.
Esperat's children, sole witnesses to the 24 March murder, are currently under a witness protection programme and have resumed their studies.
In May, RSF released a report into a series of killings of journalists in the Philippines in which it said, "The death from a bullet to the head on 24 March 2005 of Marlene Esperat, nicknamed 'Erin Brockovich' by the Philippines press, has traumatised the journalistic community, many of them women."