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Philippines 19 May 2006

Ten international NGOs press Arroyo over Esperat murder case

On the eve of the trial of four men accused of carrying out the March 2005 murder of journalist and anti-corruption activist Marlene Esperat, ten international non-governmental organisations today called on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to ensure that justice is carried out for those who ordered the killing, as well as for those who carried it out.

The NGOs pledged to support the demands of Esperat’s family, lawyer and colleagues for justice to be done in this case.

“We support the calls by Philippine press freedom groups for the investigation’s conclusions to be reviewed,” they said. “This case shocked both Philippine journalists and the international community, and judicial system must not allow the instigators to go unpunished. Its credibility is at stake.”

"We are concerned by reports that the Cebu regional court says it foresees a rapid trial for the accused perpetrators, who have reportedly confessed. While trials should be quick they should not be hasty, and we are concerned that others, suspected of commissioning this murder, have not been named in the indictments for the trial, scheduled to resume on May 22," the NGOs said.

The NGOs also urged President Arroyo to ensure that the witnesses are protected before, during and after the trial. The groups have supported - morally and materially - the efforts of Esperat’s family and colleagues to obtain justice. And they intend to follow the trial with the help of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists.

Gerry Cabayag is accused of being the gunman who entered Esperat’s home in Tacurong on the evening of 24 March 2005 while she was dining with her two sons and shot her once, above the right eye, killing her instantly. Esperat had been under police protection since a grenade attack on her home in 2003, but that evening she had told her bodyguard he could stay at home to spend Easter with his family.

A suspect, Randy Grecia, surrendered to the police on 8 April 2005. Three days later, the police arrested three other suspects, including Cabayag. All four are said to have confessed to being paid 120,000 pesos (about 1,900 euros) to kill Esperat.

Last November, the Supreme Court granted a request from the Esperat family and the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists to move the trial for security reasons from Tacurong, Esperat’s home town, to a court in the city of Cebu. In Tacurong, the case had been subject to pressure from Osmena Montaner, a Mindanao agriculture department official who is suspected of being one of the instigators. In August, the court in Tacurong had refused to let charges be brought against Montaner and another agriculture department official, Estrella Sabay, on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Esperat had exposed many cases of corruption and embezzlement. Shortly before her murder, she had presented the results of her investigation into a questionable fertilizer purchase by the agriculture department to the ombudsman, who in the Philippines has the power to prosecute corruption cases.

Esperat knew she was in great danger and wrote in a letter to President Arroyo on 14 February 2005: “I am ready to die for this cause but you can never stop the will of the Lord.”

This statement is signed by the following organisations :

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility

Committee to Protect Journalists

International PEN

International Press Institute

Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists

Reporters Without Borders

Southeast Asian Press Alliance

The Rory Peck Trust

World Press Freedom Committee

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