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Philippines 23 May 2008

Appeal court blocks trial of those who allegedly ordered journalist’s murder

Reporters Without Borders today voiced great concern about the Cebu province Appeal Court’s ban on a lower Court’s prosecution of two suspected masterminds in the murder of journalist and anti-corruption activist Marlene Esperat.

"The suspects, former agriculture ministry employees Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, are still slipping through the net," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "The life sentences imposed on the actual gunmen on 6 October 2006 was a key improvement in the country’s efforts to punish those who kill and attack journalists, but the masterminds must be prosecuted too."

"The Supreme Court must ensure the pair are tried by the Cebu Regional Court and that the case is not sent back to the Tacurong province Regional Court, where they would not be properly dealt with," it said.

The Appeal Court on 14 May banned their trial by the Cebu Regional Court and thus cancelled the 4 February warrant for their arrest. It said the Regional Court was not competent to try the pair, citing a 3 April statement by the national Solicitor-General’s Office that the Supreme Court’s 23 November 2005 order to switch the trial of the journalist’s killers from the Tacurong to the Cebu Regional Court, to ensure it was not interfered with and to protect witnesses, did not apply to Montañer and Sabay.

The lawyer of the murdered journalist’s family, Nena Santos, has asked the Supreme Court to rule that the Cebu Regional Court can try the case in its entirety, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Montañer and Sabay were acquitted by the Tacurong Court on 31 August 2005. The family and The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists then appealed on 23 November that year to the Supreme Court to send the case to the more impartial Cebu Court.

Esperat, an outspoken anti-corruption columnist for the weekly Midland Review, was shot dead on 24 March 2005 in front of her daughter at her home in Tacurong, on the southern island of Mindanao. She had several times accused Montañer and Sabay of corruption.

Her killers, along with those of journalist Edgar Damalerio, are the only people to have been punished in the Philippines for murdering a journalist in recent years. None of those who ordered the killings of 31 journalists since 2002 have been tried.

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