Suspect in journalist’s killing escapes from police camp

[Source: Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)]

The widow of a murdered Filipino journalist recently filed both criminal and administrative cases against a former provincial police commander after the primary suspect in the killing, a policeman under restrictive supervision within the commander’s camp, escaped after an arrest warrant was issued against him.

Through a relative, Ma. Gemma Damalerio, widow of slain journalist Edgar Damalerio, filed before the office of the Philippine military ombudsman on 3 March 2003 a criminal complaint of “infidelity in the custody of prisoners” against Police Senior Superintendent Pedrito Reyes for “having allowed PO1 Guillermo Wapille, an accused of the crime of Murder, to escape from P/S Supt. Reyes’ restrictive custody in the PNP camp.”

Mrs. Damalerio also filed administrative charges of grave misconduct, gross negligence, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service against Reyes.

Reyes, previously Provincial Director of the Zamboanga del Sur Provincial Office in Pagadian City, had been directed on 17 December 2002 by Regional Trial Court (RTC) Executive Judge Franklyn Villegas to place accused Wapille, whose petition for review of the investigation into his case was then pending in the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Manila, “within his restrictive supervision” within the Camp until ”further orders from this Court.”

Two witnesses had positively identified Wapille as the killer of Pagadian city journalist Edgar Damalerio on 13 May 2002.

Gemma said in her affidavit to Deputy Ombusdman Orlando Casimiro signed on 26 February, “there can be not the least doubt that P/S Supt. Reyes committed the crime of Infidelity in the Custody of a Prisoner, as defined and penalized under Article 224 of the Revised Penal Code.”

She called for an immediate investigation of the administrative and criminal charges against Reyes.

The DOJ on 16 January denied the petition of Wapille, effectively removing any hindrances to reissuing a warrant of arrest against him. The warrant of arrest had been previously suspended because of the petition for review of Wapille.

On 30 January, Villegas issued a new warrant of arrest against Wapille. When local agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) came to the camp to serve the arrest warrant on the suspect, Wapille could not be found.

The disappearance of Wapille from the camp where he was supposed to be under “restrictive supervision” as ordered by Villegas was corroborated by a report of NBI Pagadian District Office Chief Friolo Icao, Jr. to Villegas.

In a letter of explanation to Villegas dated 7 February, Reyes said that Wapille was no longer in the camp when an inventory on camp personnel was conducted on 28 January. Reyes also said that it was only on 31 January when he received an arrest warrant against the policeman.

However, according to reports gathered by Police Director Gen. Marcelo Ele of the Directorate for Investigation and Detective management of the PNP, Wapille was still seen in the camp as of 31 January.

Reyes also added that his office only received on 2 February the police order dismissing Wapille from the police service, more than three weeks after PNP Chief Hermogenes Ebdane, Jr. dismissed on 8 January Wapille and his former superior, Superintendent Asuri Hawani.

In an 8 February motion, Reyes wrote to Villegas asking for clarification of the phrase “restrictive supervision” in the latter’s 17 December order “so as to dislodge any doubt and lay into any disputation on the matter (sic) and clarify the particular import and extent of the same.”

Villegas answered in a 12 February resolution that “restrictive supervision” meant for the “Police Provincial Director to take steps to check from time to time” Wapille’s “activity or movements within the camp” and that Reyes was “NOT tasked to take into his custody the said accused.”

However, the court also said that Reyes “exerted earnest efforts to carry out the Court’s directive to the satisfaction and appreciation of the Court” and that nobody “can prevent Wapille from choosing to abscond and become a fugitive of justice…”

Just days after Wapille escaped, on 22 February, Reyes was relieved from his post and replaced by Senior Supt. Godofredo de los Reyes. According to the Manila newspaper “Today” on 20 February, “there had been speculations that Reyes had been sacked for failing to arrest” Wapille.

According to witness Edgar Amoro, the PNP and NBI were still unable to arrest Wapille despite the warrant. He also told CMFR in an email that the suspect “is still seen in Pagadian” wearing a wig. Damalerio’s relatives also fear that Wapille and his family might escape to Malaysia.

In a phone interview on 3 March, Damalerio’s sister, Fe, said she was counting on the Regional Trial Court in Pagadian City to issue a “hold departure” order against Wapille.

“The court assured us that it would be the one to notify the Bureau of Immigration once an order has been issued,” Fe told CMFR.

She also lamented the slow progress of the case and the continued non-arrest of Wapille. “It’s saddening,” she said. She said that she “pities Gemma because she does not know where to hide anymore.”

Gemma had gone into hiding after receiving death threats, and had left the custody of her only child to a relative.

Letters of protest

Meanwhile, several organizations, among them Task Force Detainees of the Philippines and the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders have called for the immediate arrest of Wapille and speedy resolution of the Damalerio case.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), composed of several Manila-based media organizations, has also sent several letters appealing to the authorities for the resolution of the case.

The FFFJ, composed of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), the CMFR, Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP/Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), held a dialogue on 7 January with PNP officials over the slow progress of the Damalerio case as well as on the unsolved cases of Filipino journalists killed in the line of duty.

The FFFJ was launched during the January 7 media dialogue. According to Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of 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.

Background

Damalerio, a radio commentator and managing editor of the “Zamboanga Scribe”, was shot dead 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.

PNP Chief Gen. Hermogenes Ebdane, Jr, dismissed both Hawani and Wapille from the police service on 8 January, 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 revealed 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 52nd since 1961. The CMFR database also shows that Damalerio was the third journalist to be killed in Pagadian City since 1999.

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 PCIJ, during the said January 7 media dialogue. “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.