The life sentences handed down today by a court in the central city of Cebu on three men found guilty of carrying out the March 2005 murder of Midland Review columnist Marlene Esperat was hailed by Reporters Without Borders as a significant first step.
“This conviction was important, especially for Esperat’s family,” the press freedom organisation said. “But the trial of the hit-men alone is not enough, and we welcome the prosecution’s decision to relaunch proceedings against the suspected instigators, as it is the only way to put an end to the impunity prevailing in the Philippines in this kind of case.”
The three men who today received life sentences are Gerry Cabagay, Randy Grecia and Estanislao Bismanos. On the justice minister’s recommendation, the department of prosecution said a formal investigation would be reopened on 10 October against two agriculture department officials suspected of masterminding Esperat’s murder - Osmeña Montañer, a finance officer, and Estrella Sabay, an accountant, of the Department of Agriculture.
In the trial that ended today, the Esperat family lawyer said charges were withdrawn against a fourth defendant, Rowie Barua, in exchange for his giving evidence against the other three accused. Barua is a former intelligence agent who was Sabay’s bodyguard. He was suspected of hiring the three hit-men but there was not enough evidence against him.
The case was originally handled by a court in the city of Tacurong, where Esperat lived and where she was murdered on 24 March 2005. But after the Tacurong court dismissed charges against Montañer and Sabay on 31 August 2005, her family and the Fund for the Freedom of Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) appealed to the supreme court on 23 November 2005 to have the case transferred to the Cebu court, which was considered more impartial.