Reyeses in handcuffs
THE LAW’S long arm might creak at the joints, but it has finally caught up with the Reyes brothers of Palawan. Arrested last Sunday in Phuket, Thailand, by Thai police, the alleged masterminds in the killing of environmentalist Gerry Ortega are scheduled to arrive early Friday morning in Manila. They had been in hiding for three and a half years.
Ortega, a journalist and anticorruption advocate, was gunned down in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, by a hired assassin on Jan. 24, 2011. Captured soon after, the gunman, Marlon Recamata, confessed; his confession led to the arrest of other suspects, who named Joel Reyes, a former governor, and his brother Mario, a former mayor, as the masterminds.
In March 2012, just a few days before the warrants for their arrest were to have been issued, the brothers fled the country for Vietnam—apparently using fake passports, and accompanied by one of their lawyers. They were not seen again, until Sunday. (It has been reported that a police task force visited Thailand last year, following up on a lead about the brothers.)
Their return to the country breathes new life into the Ortega murder case. The influential Palawan politicians are of course presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but the legal maxim is clear: Flight indicates guilt. Despite what the Reyes brothers and their lawyers have put forth, that they are mere victims of a political ploy, the fact that they ran away just as their arrest warrants were being prepared, with the apparent help of some immigration officials, suggests that their protestations of innocence were merely strategic. The possibility that justice will finally be rendered in the death of Ortega has renewed hope among his family and supporters.
Ortega died because his twin passions, for the environment and for Palawan, led him to confront proof of corruption in the provincial administration of Joel Reyes. When he served for a single term as a member of the provincial board, he reportedly found evidence of “widespread corruption” under Reyes, and became the governor’s “fiscalizer and foremost critic.” (The quotes are from his widow’s affidavit.)
On his radio show, he continued criticizing Reyes, in part for the alleged misuse of the province’s share of revenues from the Malampaya oil field. It was after anchoring one such show that the assassin came for him.
While the Reyes brothers may be in detention, they continue to be powerful politicians, with access to considerable resources. If they were able to escape the government’s grasp before, it is best to assume that they can do so again. The first order, then, is utmost vigilance.
But their return should also help jump-start the investigation into the alleged misuse of the Malampaya funds. It is incumbent on the Aquino administration, then, to push the various concerned government agencies to look into the alleged anomaly.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday she was leaving the Department of Justice soon, to pursue her Senate candidacy. It is likely that her resignation will be effective next week, on the day the Liberal Party coalition under presidential candidate Mar Roxas will announce its senatorial slate. That leaves precious little time for De Lima to ensure, not only that the case against the Reyes brothers is airtight, but also that the defense will not be able to avoid accountability through legal technicalities and bureaucratic pressure.
Already, one of the lawyers for the Reyes brothers contends that the arrest warrants are invalid. Also, one cannot discount that, even after five years of Aquino rule, some elements of the government bureaucracy may still extend extraordinary assistance to politicians like the brothers. We call on De Lima to make certain that the arrest of the Reyeses won’t be for nought.
There is also the matter of ferreting out the truth about the brother’s 2012 flight. Who in the Bureau of Immigration helped them with their passage? Who in the Department of Foreign Affairs assisted them with fake or tampered passports? Not least: Did one of their lawyers accompany them on their flight to Vietnam, knowing full well that they were the subject of an ongoing investigation?
The brothers’ return can help serve justice in the death of Gerry Ortega, and determine the truth in the Reyeses’ fugitive flight.
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