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Editorial

Just thing to do

/ 05:32 AM January 20, 2018

The Supreme Court itself has ruled that “the flight of an accused is competent evidence to indicate his guilt; and flight, when unexplained, is a circumstance from which an inference of guilt may be drawn” (People vs Mores).

By this standard, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes’ act of jumping bail on his graft case in 2012 and escaping to Thailand, after the Department of Justice found probable cause to charge him with the murder of environmentalist and broadcaster Gerry Ortega, should have made him more culpable in the eyes of the law. But the special division of the Court of Appeals that voted early this month to free Reyes and stop all proceedings against him disregarded the undisputed evidence that Reyes and his co-accused brother, former Coron mayor Mario Reyes, had evaded the law by forging their passports and living as fugitives for three years in a plush resort in Phuket, Thailand. “Flight is not per se always synonymous with guilt…,” declared the majority decision written by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro.

That—along with the contention that the testimony against Reyes was riddled with “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” and, even more startling, that Ortega’s critical coverage of Reyes’ governorship could not be a sufficient motive for the former’s murder since “criticisms alone is (sic) too trivial a reason to murder somebody”—formed the basis for the court’s shocking decision to release the former governor.

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At the time that Reyes was facing the possibility of a murder trial for Ortega’s killing, he was already facing other charges—for graft, arising from anomalies tied to the renewal of permits for a mining company operating in Palawan, the alleged misuse of P1.53 billion in Malampaya gas field royalties, and violations in the procurement law related to the awarding of 209 public works contracts to 11 construction firms in 2008. Ortega was a fierce critic of Reyes on these issues, especially on the mining depredations in Palawan that the provincial government appeared to condone.

In August 2017, Reyes was convicted by the Sandiganbayan of graft and sentenced to six to eight years in prison, for the unwarranted benefit he gave to Olympic Mines and Development Corp. in renewing its small-scale mining permits despite the company having exceeded the allowable ore extraction limit and its usage of heavy equipment in violation of the law. The penalty came with Reyes’ perpetual disqualification from public office; he still faces 36 other counts of graft over the Malampaya funds case.

But, pending the appeal of his graft conviction, Reyes is out on bail—a situation that the Office of the Ombudsman worries might present him another opportunity to go on the lam. Hence, it has asked the Sandiganbayan to cancel Reyes’ bail and order his rearrest. “He fled the country when he was just facing the issue of probable cause in another criminal case, with more reason that the Honorable Court should be wary of his claims given his looming imprisonment of more than six years when the decision rendered on 29 August 2017 is affirmed,” government prosecutors said.

The Ombudsman’s appeal is but right and reasonable, given Reyes’ record of contempt for the law. Contrary to the statement he filed in opposition to the prosecutors’ appeal—that he had “always been respectful of the Honorable Court and its processes”—Reyes’ history of faking his passport, jumping bail and living the life of a fugitive for three years makes him not only a certified flight risk, but also an egregious law offender. “He defied the directives of the Honorable Court and violated the terms of his provisional liberty” when he fled to Thailand in 2012, the prosecutors pointed out.

Reyes might have gotten off the hook in Ortega’s murder, but his conviction in the graft case should clap him back in jail. Canceling his bail now, before he finds the opportunity to escape again, is the just thing to do.

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TAGS: graft case, joel reyes, Supreme Court
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