DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 30 April) – The principal suspect in the 2005 murder of columnist Marlene Esperat who has been eluding arrest for 10 years now showed up on April 22 in a public gathering in Matling, Malabang, Lanao del Sur in the presence of the municipal police chief, the governor of Lanao del Sur and the Army’s brigade and battalion commanders during a settlement of a rido (clan war) involving the suspect’s family.
The suspect, former Finance Officer Osmeña Montañer of the Department of Agriculture (DA) in Region 12, was not arrested. In fact, he sat at the Presidential table with officials who told MindaNews they did not know he was a wanted man.
Cotabato City-based reporter John Unson of Philippine Star posted on his Facebook wall on Friday morning a photograph of Montañer at the gathering, seated beside Col. Ariel dela Vega of the 603rd Infantry Brigade and Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr. and other officials.
Unson wrote on his FB wall a question addressed to Senior Inspector Benji Omalla, Malabang police chief. He asked “si dating budget officer Osmeña Montañer ng Dept. of Agriculture, Region 12, ay wanted for the murder of local print journalist (Marlene) Esperat, In fact yan ang reason kung bakit siya ay di na nakikita sa regional office ng DA-12 sa Koronadal City. Bakit dito sa nangyaring ‘rido’ settlement sa Malabang just this week, eh nagpakita siya, umupo pa sa tabi ni Col. Dela Vega ng 603rd Brigade, kasama na si Gov. Bombit Adiong (left of Dela Vega). Is this alright? something just fine with you?”
It certainly was not fine for lawyer Nena Santos, Esperat’s friend who served as lawyer for her family after her murder. “He has a pending warrant of arrest issued by the Makati court for the murder of Marlene Esperat. The case is pending kasi di pa sya nahuli (because he has not been arrested). The people around him should arrest him and turn him over the authorities, otherwise, they will be charged with obstruction of justice.”
The police chief, the Army brigade commander, the governor and regional vice governor all claimed they were not aware Montañer was a wanted man.
Heads must roll
Rowena Carranza-Paraan, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), told MindaNews it was “shocking to see a photo of a wanted murder suspect seated together with high-ranking officials with the latter seeming oblivious to the heinous murder that was condemned by the entire world.”
“It had always been perplexing how for the longest time the police could not serve the arrest warrant but it is clear from the photo that it has no intention of doing so. We demand an investigation on why a wanted suspected murderer was not arrested when there was opportunity to do so. Was it mere stupidity or deliberate flouting of the law? Either way, heads must roll,” she said.
Omalla told MindaNews in a telephone interview that they merely provided security for the activity and was unaware that Montañer was a wanted man. “Caught unaware po kami,” he said, adding the activity was arranged by the governor’s office.
ARMM Vice Governor Haroun Al-Raschid Lucman told MindaNews he didn’t know Montañer was a wanted man.
“Hindi ko alam yan. May issued warrant ba?” Lucman said in reply to MindaNews’ query about Montañer’s presence in the gathering.
Lucman, who posted photographs of the event on his Facebook wall from where Unson got the photo and cropped it to show Montañer on the left, Dela Vega at the center and Adiong on the right, wrote: “witnessing a deadly rido settlement costing more than 10 lives in a 14-year period involving the Montañer family headed by Dir. Osmena Montaner and the family of Commander ‘Orak Orak’ Datu a Mangoda Lominog Ali.”
Lucman said it was initiated by Gov. Adiong, assisted by Board Member Tanjie Macapodi.
“It was a highly emotional day for the families involved who are close relatives making their vows before God to end their conflict and renew their long lost family unity and ties,” Lucman wrote.
Dela Vega told MindaNews in a text message that he is “not aware of any arrest warrant re subject personality.”
“Our main intent is to facilitate, assist and provide venue for the rido settlement,” he said.
The venue for the settlement was the 6th Infantry Battalion of the 603rd Brigade.
Adiong told MindaNews in a telephone interview Monday night “di ko alam” (I didn’t know) that Montañer was a wanted man. He said he was focused on attending to the needs of his constituents to end the bloody rido there.
Esperat, a chemist at the Department of Agriculture in Region 12 who turned whistleblower against the alleged corrupt practices in her office, implicating DA officials like Montañer and regional accountant Estrella Sabay, was gunned down in front of her children while having dinner at the family’s house in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2005.
Esperat worked as chemist and later as resident ombudsman for the DA. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) wrote on its profile of Esperat that while inside the DA, Esperat discovered that the fertilizers that the regional office were giving to the local farmers were insufficient, inferior, and far cheaper than what was originally listed at the official budget of the department.
Esperat exposed several corrupt practices, including the fertilizer scam that involved officials of the Arroyo administration.
She later joined The Midland Review in Tacurong as columnist and was president of Region 12’s Tri-Media Association.
Arrest warrants unserved
Esperat had accused Montañer and Sabay for corrupt practices. Like Montañer, Sabay has yet to be arrested.
Esperat, along with several witnesses, also exposed the alleged deliberate burning of the DA office in Cotabato City on May 7, 1998 to destroy the hard evidence in the cases against Montañer and his companions.
The CMFR said that in early 2005, “Montañer and Sabay purportedly drew a plan to permanently silence Esperat, through ex-military intelligence officer Rowie Barua.”
The alleged gunman and lookout have been jailed but the two alleged masterminds, including Montañer, have yet to be arrested.
The prosecution found three witnesses but two of them recanted their testimonies, apparently for fear of their lives. The third and lone state witness, Rowee Barua, a police sergeant who acted as go-between for the alleged masterminds and the alleged hired guns, chose to tell all that he knew about Esperat’s murder and according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism was “dismissed without honor” by the Philippine National Police on May 17, 2010. The PCIJ report posted on its blogsite on April 15, 2011 said Barua “sustains his eight children with the P5,000 he receives as monthly stipend from the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice.”
“Esperat’s case had had to be moved to three regional trial courts in the five years since her murder. The courts had had to issue three warrants for the arrest of the alleged masterminds. But in all instances, the alleged masterminds and their clearly more influential patrons and lawyers foiled the service of the warrants,” the PCIJ 2011 report said.