Very Important Prisoners
Many of us must have been struck by the constant smile on the face of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes even after he and his fellow fugitive from justice, his brother Mario, had been arrested in Thailand. He was smiling after he deplaned at the Manila airport, he was smiling as he entered Camp Crame, he was smiling even while he was being booked. In contrast, his brother looked dour, unhappy to be back in the country the brothers had studiously avoided for over three years.
They had reason to be unhappy: They have been identified, by the assassin now convicted and sentenced to life in prison, as the masterminds in the murder of environmental advocate, radio broadcaster and one-term politician Gerry Ortega. A few days before their warrants of arrest were to be issued, they fled the Philippines—apparently first through Vietnam, and finally ending up in Phuket, Thailand.
Perhaps the smile was a deliberate decision on the ex-governor’s part, to put on a brave face; perhaps it came naturally to him, and that is how he responds to pressure. But deliberate or natural, the smile became a symbol—of the privileges that wealthy and powerful politicians like the Reyes brothers continue to enjoy, even though they are fugitives from justice and the principal accused in a very public murder.
Consider their jail cell: The detainees who used to occupy it were moved to other quarters; the area is newly repainted, and has its own toilet. “We are overcrowded here,” a detainee said. “Only they (the Reyes brothers) have their own cell in a nice location.”
Consider their news conference: The brothers were granted the extraordinary privilege of conducting a press briefing in the city jail, without express permission of the court. The Puerto Princesa jail warden said he allowed the brothers to field questions from reporters (though it was the ex-governor who did the talking) because, well, Governor Reyes had made the request.
An angry Justice Secretary Leila de Lima recommended sanctions against the warden. “I will leave it to Secretary [Mel] Sarmiento or [to] BJMP authorities to impose appropriate disciplinary or administrative sanction, including relieving or replacing the city warden, if warranted. But she also said that “persons deprived of their liberty” for alleged participation in a crime “cannot just be allowed to hold press conferences without official permission.” She added: “And in the case of detention prisoners [such as] the Reyes brothers, court permission is needed.”
Consider, above all, their legal strategy. They have said that they will seek the privilege of “hospital detention”—because apparently their luxury villa in Phuket was not conducive to their health.
“[There is] no basis for hospital detention, which indubitably smacks of special or VIP treatment. Enough of such ruses or ploys [that] mock our justice system,” De Lima said. “Matters like that are subject to the court’s sound discretion. But on the part of the prosecution, we’ll definitely oppose that.”
There’s the rub. Everything about the Reyes brothers’ return to Palawan smacks of special or VIP treatment. Palawan is the scene of the crime, but it is also the Reyeses’ home ground. The bureaucracy remains open to the Reyes family’s influence. (How dispiriting to hear that when Ortega’s valiant widow Patricia visited the jail, to check on conditions before the brothers arrived, she “wasn’t welcome” there, with the jail authorities reportedly giving her the cold shoulder.) The decision to allow the brothers to conduct a news conference was a clear case of accommodation—the sort of arrangement people in positions of authority provide their betters. Not least, the proposal to seek hospital detention is an act of entitlement, a reflex of impunity.
Those of us struck by the constant smile on Joel Reyes’ face must now be wondering: Is he smiling because, at the end of all this, he and his brother will have the last laugh?
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