Cop-Suspect in Journalist’s Slay Escapes Police Custody

Source: Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

The alleged killer of Pagadian City journalist Edgar Damalerio has escaped from police custody after the local judge hearing his case ordered his arrest.

Several media organizations expressed alarm over the escape.

The media groups also accused the police of protecting suspect Police Officer 1 Guillermo Wapille, and of obstructing justice.

On 30 January 2003, the Pagadian City regional trial court ordered the arrest of Wapille, whom two witnesses claimed shot Damalerio. Wapille, temporarily reassigned in Camp Abelon in Pagadian City, was supposed to be restricted within camp premises under the supervision of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Provincial Director Pedrito Reyes.

Wapille was last seen in the camp on 31 January. He left the following day, according to reports gathered by Police Director Gen. Marcelo Ele of the Directorate for Investigation and Detective management of the PNP.

Judge Franklyn Villegas had ordered the arrest of Wapille after he received information from the city prosecutor’s office on 30 January that the Department of Justice (DOJ) on 16 January had dismissed Wapille’s petition to review the investigation into the criminal case against him.

As of February 7, seven days since he allegedly made his escape, the Pagadian City police had yet to find or arrest Wapille.

Reports received by the Damalerio family said that the suspect is still in Pagadian City. One of the two witnesses against Wapille, Edgar Amoro, told CMFR that he had been receiving death threats. “I’m on alert right now,” he said. Amoro now has two private bodyguards and a number of police escorts trailing him wherever he goes.

The journalist’s widow, Gemma, who is still in hiding for fear that the killer of her husband would go after her, also said that other family members are also now being threatened and watched by anonymous persons.

In an interview with CMFR, Gemma lamented the latest development of the case. “This is frustrating,” Gemma said in Filipino. If Wapille is not found or arrested within the validity period (until 10 February) of the warrant of arrest issued against him, Gemma said she will file a case of infidelity in the custody of prisoners against Reyes.

Edgar Lavella, a lawyer consulted by the Damalerios, said that Reyes, as Wapille’s custodian, has to explain what happened.

“He (Reyes) could be cited for contempt, as well as face administrative charges,” he told CMFR.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), an umbrella group of media organizations composed of the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the CMFR, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Philippine Press Institute, condemned police inaction and accused the local PNP of protecting Wapille.

Damalerio, a radio commentator and managing editor of the “Zamboanga Scribe”, was shot dead on May 13, 2002 while on-board his private jeep in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, 780 kilometers south of Manila. He was killed near the city police headquarters and the city hall.

Despite positive identification by witnesses Amoro and Edgar Ongue who were with Damalerio at the time of the killing, then Pagadian City police chief Superintendent Asuri Hawani filed murder charges against another person and failed to investigate his then subordinate Wapille, and to file charges against him.

Both Hawani and Wapille were dismissed from the police service on 8 January by PNP Chief Gen. Hermogenes Ebdane, Jr, six months after Damalerio’s family filed administrative and criminal charges against the two.

The dismissals, however, were not acted upon. Calls by the FFFJ to police officials in Pagadian city indicated that the police authorities were reluctant to enforce the order.

According to the CMFR database, Damalerio was the 35th Filipino journalist to be killed in the line of duty since 1986, and the 50th since 1961. Since 1961, only two cases have been verified to have been solved and which resulted in the imprisonment of the killers.

However, since 1986, not one case has been solved. The CMFR database shows that an average of three journalists have been killed since then per year, despite the decrease in the number of slain journalists worldwide.

“The Damalerio case represents an opportunity to break the cycle of impunity and catch the killer,” said Sheila Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), during a January 7 media dialogue between FFFJ and top PNP officials regarding Damalerio’s case as well as the increasing number of journalists killed in the line of duty.. “It is a rare opportunity for us to get the killer of a journalist,” she said.

The increasing number of journalists killed in the country because of their work and the constant number of journalists killed per year prompted Lin Neumann, Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, to declare that the Philippines “has become the most dangerous place for journalists,” worse than other press hotspots elsewhere such as Columbia, Algeria, Pakistan, and Russia.

“Nowhere else in the world have more journalists been killed in the last 15 years than in the Philippines,” Neumann said during the January 7 discussions.

The FFFJ was launched during the January 7 media dialogue. According to Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the CMFR, FFFJ was conceptualized in response to the increasing number of cases of killings of journalists that remain unsolved in a country that is considered as having the freest press in the region.

“There’s a clear need to establish a kind of fund for journalists killed while doing their work,” she said.