Philippines: Release of ex-mayor convicted for rape, murder halted by public protest

Protest organised by feminist organisation Gabriela against Sanchez's early release. Photo: twitter.com/gabrielaphils

Public outrage has prevented the release on “good conduct” grounds of former mayor Antonio Sanchez, who was convicted for rape and murder in 1993

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the planned release of Sanchez on August 19, citing a 2013 law that allows for reducing jail time for “good conduct”.

However, according to the same law, “persons charged with heinous crimes”, such as Sanchez, are excluded from jail time reductions.

News of the mayor’s planned release resulted in public outcry. Women’s and students’ groups held simultaneous protests on August 23 in front of the DOJ and the University of the Philippines, Los Banos (UPLB) campus — where Sanchez’s victims studied.

According to the Rappler news site, Bureau of Corrections Chief Nicanor Faeldon ordered Sanchez’s release, but stopped the process after public outrage.

Sanchez was mayor of the town of Calauan in Laguna province — located 73 kilometres south-east of Manila — when he masterminded the rape and murder of UPLB students Eileen Sarmenta and her boyfriend Allan Gomez in 1993.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s Legal Counsel, Salvador Panelo, was Sanchez’s lawyer in the rape and murder case.

‘Plot hatched in hell’

Days before the crime, 21-year-old Sarmenta interviewed Sanchez for a university project. She and Gomez were later abducted from the UPLB campus by Calauan police, led by local police chief George Medialdea.

One of Sanchez’s aids, Luis Corcolon said prior to the abduction that Sarmenta would be a “gift” to the mayor.

Sanchez repeatedly raped Sarmenta at one of his properties in Calauan, while Gomez was tortured.

After the rape, Sanchez handed Sarmenta over to two of his goons.

The men drove Sarmenta and Gomez to a vacant field where six men, including Medialdea, raped Sarmenta. The two were later killed and their bodies dumped in separate locations.

In ruling on the case, Judge Harriet Demetriou described the crime as a “plot seemingly hatched in hell”.

Sanchez and his men were sentenced to seven life sentences, or 280 years in jai, in 1995.

Other crimes

A year later, Sanchez was given two life sentences, or 80 years in prison, for the murder of Nelson Penalosa and his son in 1991. Nelson was an organiser for one of Sanchez’s political rivals.

While in prison, Sanchez ran a drug operation. In 2006, several drug sachets and paraphernalia were discovered in his cell and drugs worth $43,000 were seized in 2010, some hidden inside a Virgin Mary altar.

Prison officers seized an air-conditioning unit, flat screen TVs and mobile phones from Sanchez in 2015, all of which are banned from the prison.

The Ombudsman also seized 19 of Sanchez’s properties in 2018 on grounds that they were the proceeds of crime.

Sanchez maintained his innocence in a recent interview.

Outrage

Sarmenta and Gomez’s families expressed outrage at the announcement of Sanchez’s impending release.

In a radio interview, Sarmenta’s mother Clara tearfully recalled the pain she felt during the trial.

“We are all fearing for our lives,” Gomez’s brother OJ told the Daily Inquirer. “I also fear for the town of Calauan and their townspeople.”

Calauan mayor George Berris said: “It will create fear not only among residents of Calauan but also in UPLB,” citing that Sanchez still has a support base of 8000.

Photos circulated online show Sanchez in a hospital suite and inside his family’s residence — indicating that he has enjoyed unsanctioned releases from prison.

Solidarity of Filipino Workers chair Leody de Guzman said Sanchez’s planned release illustrated the impunity inherent in the “framework of fascism and capitalist rule”.

“They save and set free rich criminals, but jail and kill working people and their activist defenders,” de Guzman said.

Liza Maza from the feminist group Gabriela reminded the public to “remain vigilant” because of the Duterte government’s habit of “flip-flopping” on their announcements.

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