Esperat murder 3 years later: triggermen punished but where are the masterminds?

Cotabato City police chief Willie Dangane told MindaNews on March 7 that the warrants for the arrest of alleged masterminds Osmena Montaner, finance officer of the Department of Agriculture regional office and Estrella Sabay, regional accountant, had been served in their residences in the city afternoon of February 22 but the two suspects had fled.

The arrest warrants were issued on February 4.

“They were able to enter the houses of the suspects,” Dangane said. “But they (suspects)
were no longer there.”Supt. Danilo Bacas, spokesperson of the Philippine National Police in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), told MindaNews the warrant had also been served in the other residence of Montaner in Malabang, Lanao del Sur on March 7 by the 1505th Provincial Mobile Group (PMG) but Montaner was not there.

Montaner and Sabay were named masterminds in the killing of Esperat by former military intelligence agent Rowie Biruar, who helped plan the assassination but later turned state witness.

Through Barua’s testimony, the three other hired killers, Randy Grecia, Gerry Cabayag and Estanislao Bismanos, were sentenced to life imprisonment by Cebu City RTC Judge Eric Menchavez on October 6, 2006.

Esperat, a DA chemist who turned whistleblower on corrupt practices in the regional office, was gunned down on March 24, 2005, a Maundy Thursday, while having dinner with her two young sons at their residence in Tacurong City.

Esperat wrote “Madame Witness,” a column for a local weekly, Midland Review.

As chemist employed at the DA regional office from 1987 to 2004, she discovered several cases of graft and corrupt practices involving misuse of public funds intended for use of marginalized farmers. She accused Montaner and Sabay, among others, of alleged corrupt practices.

Judge Simeon Dumdum of the Regional Trial Court Branch 7 in Cebu City, issued the warrant of arrest against Montaner and Sabay on February 4.

The two suspects had asked the court to quash the charges filed against them by the state prosecutor on February 1 this year, claiming the RTC in Cebu has no jurisdiction over the case because the murder happened in Tacurong City.

But Judge Dumum on February 18 denied the motion to quash, saying his court has jurisdiction over the case as stated in a Supreme Court resolution dated November 23, 2005. The high court ordered the transfer of the hearing from Tacurong to Cebu in response to a petition by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) citing safety concerns and the need for a more neutral court.

The judge said the case against Montaner and Sabay “is but a continuation of the proceedings, of which Criminal Case No. 2568 was just the first part relative to the murder of Marlene Esperat.”

Dumdum also denied the motion filed by Montaner and Sabay seeking to stop the serving of the arrest warrants against them.

According to the Center for Freedom and Democracy, the case against Montaner and Sabay “has been twice dismissed.”

Before the case was transferred to Cebu City in late 2005, Tacurong City RTC Judge Francis Palmones had dismissed the case without hearing, stating that the complaint has
“no probable cause.” In Cebu, Judge Menchavez, who sentenced Esperat’s gunmen to life imprisonment, dismissed the case against the two “because of legal technicalities in the filing date,” CMFR said.

Esperat’s friend, Nena Santos, also private lawyer for the prosecution, told MindaNews the Court of Appeals in Cebu will hear Monday, March 24, the third death anniversary of Esperat, a petition filed by the suspects’ lawyers,  to issue Judge Dumdum a TRO, citing he has no jurisdiction over the case. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)