Gov’t task force, groups urge SC to order rearrest of ex-Palawan guv in Ortega slay


FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court logo. (INQUIRER/LYN RILLON)

MANILA, Philippines — The Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFMS), along with other groups, on Monday joined the call to have former Palawan governor Mario Joel Reyes rearrested for his alleged role in the murder of anti-corruption crusader, staunch environmentalist, and broadcaster Dr. Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa City in 2011.

PTFMS chief Usec. Joel Egco expressed the belief that the evidence of Reyes’ guilt was strong in the criminal case filed against the former Palawan governor.

He issued the statement after the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) asked the Supreme Court to lift the March 23, 2022, temporary restraining order (TRO) of the Puerto Princesa City regional trial court (RTC) to have Reyes rearrested.

READ: OSG asks SC to lift TRO, wants ex-Palawan guv rearrested for Ortega slay

“The Presidential Task Force shares the sentiments of the OSG in its motion to lift the TRO which is preventing the re-arrest of the former governor. We believe that the evidence of guilt is strong in the criminal case filed against Reyes in connection with the slaying of Gerry Ortega,” Egco said in a statement.

Previously, Egco backed the action of the OSG in initiating an investigation to find any anomaly with regard to the Court of Appeals’ (CA) 2018 decision to release Reyes from detention due to the alleged insufficiency of evidence in the murder case.

In its 62-page comment, the OSG also asked the SC magistrates to dismiss the petition for review filed by Reyes at the high court.

“I have full trust and confidence with the OSG, as a member agency of PTFoMS, in its commitment to attaining justice for this heinous act. The task force will not stand idly by until all those responsible for the killing of Ortega, including the masterminds, are put behind bars,” Egco said.

Ortega was gunned down on January 24, 2011, in Puerto Princesa City after the airing of his radio program “Ramatak.” Many considered him an “environmental hero.”

Marlon Recamata, the gunman, was arrested and pleaded guilty to murder in February 2011.

Reyes was tagged by a former bodyguard, Rodolfo Edrad, as the mastermind behind the killing of Ortega, who had criticized the former Palawan governor for the supposed destruction of the environment in the province.

Also implicated in the killing was Reyes’ brother, former Coron Mayor Mario Reyes. The two are running for governor and mayor, respectively, in the coming elections on May 9.

READ: Reyes brothers in Ortega killing arrested in Thailand

For his part, senatorial candidate and former Bayan Muna party-list representative Neri Colmenares called for the TRO for the rearrest of Reyes a “great injustice” for the people of Palawan.

“Considering the circumstances of evading arrest before their trial, the recent decision to set aside the arrest warrant of the mastermind of the murder, former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, is highly questionable. The trial for the murder of Gerry Ortega already took a slow pace with Governor Reyes and his brother hiding in Thailand, which should be viewed as a sign of guilt,” he added.

Colmenares, who is also a human rights lawyer, also said the SC TRO is questionable as other inmates continue to languish inside cramped detention facilities, despite the weakness of their cases.

“With the SC setting aside their arrest while they appeal the case, it begs the question, what makes former Governor Reyes special that he gets the privilege of a TRO while other detainees continue to languish inside cramped detention facilities, despite the weaknesses of their cases?” he added.

The senatorial aspirant also said that witness testimonies corroborate and are strong enough to stand in court and convict the former governor and his brother.

“How the Reyes brothers also stalled the cases with their hiding, allowing former Governor Reyes to be free and run for office, only insults the legacy of Doc Gerry, who had ardently defended Palawan from environmental plunder. Reyes had already been convicted for graft for his questionable issuances of mining permits. That alone should have kept him behind bars. And even with the Ortega murder case under review, he, like any other detained suspect, should stay in jail until a final verdict is reached. Until this glaring mistake is remedied, our justice system remains dysfunctional,” Colmenares said.

For lawyer and environmental policy expert Dean Tony La Viña, it would be useful to shed light on the status of the two cases — one for the murder of Ortega for which trial is still to be conducted, and another involving graft and corruption where a judgment of conviction has been rendered but being appealed before the SC.

“On the first case, the SC will have to decide the motion for reconsideration that Mr. Reyes has filed on the reinstatement by the Court of Appeals of the charges filed against him. The OSG has opposed that motion and has asked for the lifting of the TRO so that the Ortega murder trial is resumed and completed. On the second case, where perpetual disqualification for public office, has been meted on Mr. Reyes, the Court will have to affirm the conviction,” La Viña said

“In both cases, no final decision of the SC has been issued. We expect that justice will be done once the process is completed,” he said.

International journalist group Safer World for the Truth said it welcomes OSG’s request to the SC to “order the immediate re-arrest and detention” of the former Palawan governor, saying that this request follows a decade of Reyes’ delaying and escaping prosecution in spite of the strong evidence of guilt.

“This evasion of prosecution by Joel T. Reyes results constitutes impunity, but also a threat to the family of Gerry Ortega, and all other journalists in the Philippines. It sends the message that murdering journalists can go unpunished,” the group said.

READ: 9 years after doctor-radioman Gerry Ortega’s murder, NUJP still pushing for justice

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), meanwhile, said it stands with the family and friends of Ortega in calling for justice for his murder, adding that it welcomes the move by the OSG and PTFMS to have Reyes rearrested.

“The course of the case, which has run for more than a decade, and that call for justice necessarily includes the call for the arrest of former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and his continued trial as a suspected mastermind in the murder,” it said.

“These are legal arguments, but we hold to a more basic reason for his arrest: A murder suspect who can evade arrest and go about his political business can influence the case and while Reyes may be within his rights to run for office, it is likely that he does not have the right to do it outside of government custody,” it added.

The NUJP also said that press freedom and human rights groups have long held that impunity in attacks against journalists emboldens those who seek to silence the critical press and put the entire media community at greater risk.

“We join Doc Gerry’s family, friends, and supporters in calling for the long-delayed justice for his murder and call as well for his arrest to face trial for the killing. More broadly, we join the call for continuing reforms that would help preserve crime scenes, speed up investigations and prosecution of those who attack journalists,” it further said.

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