The Justice Department yesterday was forced to drop murder charges it had filed against Philip Medel Jr "for lack of evidence", almost a week after he recanted his admission of the murder of Philippine screen icon, Nida Blanca.

In a resolution dropping the case against the 54-year-old former mercenary, Chief State Prosecutor, Jovencito Zuno, also ordered the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) to come up with new evidence to pin down Medel and the other suspects in the murder of the actress.

Last Friday, Medel expressed his outrage before Justice Department officials as he claimed to have been tortured by CIDG agents into confessing to the crime. Five days earlier, Medel had admitted to killing the 65-year-old actress in her car parked inside the building where she holds office as a member of the state film censor board.

The suspect said he was hired by the victim's husband, Rod Strunk, to "persuade" Blanca into surrendering a disputed document, believed to be legal rights to property. But he said the operation went awry, prompting Strunk to order him to kill the actress.

Despite the dropping of charges against Medel, the Justice Department said that he remains a suspect. The prosecutors said the complaint against Medel and another suspect, Michael Martinez, as well as the wife killing case against Strunk, should be referred back to police investigators "in the interests of justice and fair play".

In a news conference, Zuno said that unless the CIDG comes up with more convincing evidence, the Justice Department will not conduct a further probe into the case.

Justice Secretary Hernando Perez explained that the order from Zuno would allow the CIDG to pursue other angles to determine who really killed Blanca.

"This means we are ordering the CIDG to produce more evidence and continue their investigations into the case. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) will likewise continue their probe until new evidence is gathered and produced," he noted.

Medel's statements recanting his earlier testimony has brought the probe into the Nida Blanca case back to square one and cast doubt over a credible investigation by the CIDG whose reputation had been marred by Medel's allegations of torture.

Doubts have also been cast on Medel's credibility and the state of his mental health following the Friday fracas at the Justice Department. The former police and military civilian agent who worked for two years as a mercenary in Angola during the mid-1990s has undergone a psychiatric test conducted by the NBI.

The Blanca case has been the most sensational crime involving a local celebrity in recent years. The slaying of Blanca, who portrayed a wholesome image in her screen roles, has riveted the country's attention to the ongoing investigations.

Meanwhile, police yesterday said a body that had been found abandoned in a vacant lot some 120 km south of Manila in Batangas province was not that of Mike Martinez, the man named by Medel as the one who introduced him to Strunk.

Police issued the statement after Bobby Martinez said that the body is not that of his brother. Martinez was abducted by still unidentified men a day before Medel recanted his admission of the Blanca murder last Friday.