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Director of prisons in the Philippines charged with the murder of journalist Mabasa

Radio host Percival Mabasa, who had criticized officials for corruption, was shot dead in Manila in October.

Police authorities in the Philippines have brought murder charges against the country’s prison chief and others for ordering the murder of a prominent radio journalist that drew international condemnation.

Charges were filed Monday against Bureau of Corrections Chief Gerald Bantag, who has been suspended from his post, prison security officer Ricardo Zulueta, and other key suspects in the fatal shooting of Percival Mabasa on 3 October.

The 63-year-old man was killed by two assailants on a motorcycle outside a residential complex in the Las Pinas area of ​​suburban Manila. Mabasa had fiercely criticized Bantag and other officials for alleged corruption and other anomalies.

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A joint statement read out at a news conference by senior judicial, interior and police officials said three gang leaders locked up in the country’s largest prison under Bantag’s control had been contacted to search for a gunman to kill. Mabasa for a contract of 550,000 pesos ($9,400).

Philippine Secretary of the Interior Benjamin Abalos Jr. (R) gestures with Philippine Attorney General Jesus Remulla (L) during a press conference announcing the suspects in the murder of radio journalist Percival Mabasa, at the Department of Justice in Manila on November 7.  2022
Philippine Secretary of the Interior Benjamin Abalos Jr, right, with Philippine Attorney General Jesus Remulla, left, during a press conference. [Ted Aljibe/AFP]

However, after the murder, the gunman, who was identified by police as Joel Escorial, surrendered in fear after government officials posted a reward for his capture. He then publicly identified an inmate, Jun Villamor, who he said was assigned by detained gang leaders to call him and organize Mabasa’s murder.

Gang leaders then killed Villamor inside the prison by suffocating him with a plastic bag, allegedly on the orders of Bantag and Zulueta, authorities said.

Eugene Javier, an agent with the National Bureau of Investigation who read the statement, said “Bantag had a clear motive for carrying out the murders… For Percy Lapid, it was the continued exposure by the latter of the troublemakers against the former in his show, Lapid Fire.”

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Bantag has denied any involvement in the murders. He and Zulueta have also been indicted for Villamor’s murder. No warrants have yet been issued for their arrests, authorities said.

Mabasa, who used the broadcast name Percy Lapid, is among the latest media workers to be killed in a Southeast Asian country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists in the world.

‘good development’

Jonathan De Santos, president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, welcomed the “good development” of the case, but warned that there was a long way to go.

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“As we have seen, it takes a decade or more to get a conviction,” De Santos told the AFP news agency.

In addition to Bantag, Mabasa also harshly criticized former President Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs. Duterte ended his turbulent six-year term in June.

Duterte appointed Bantag as head of the Bureau of Corrections in 2019 despite pending criminal cases. Bantag had faced charges for a 2016 confrontation that killed 10 inmates when he was director of another detention center. A court later acquitted him.

About 200 journalists have been killed in the country since 1986, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, according to the journalists’ union. The group led a protest Tuesday night, calling on the government to do more to stop the killings.

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