Mocking public office
AMONG THOSE who filed their candidacies last week for the 2016 polls were brothers Joel and Mario Reyes, the former governor of Palawan and former mayor of Coron town, respectively. They also happen to be the primary suspects in the murder of journalist and environmental activist Gerry Ortega. But, despite their recent apprehension in Phuket, Thailand, and subsequent detention at the Puerto Princesa City Jail after three years on the lam, they were able to file their certificates of candidacy—through Coron local government administrator Lyle Coruna, who was reportedly given a special power of attorney by the brothers to submit the papers on their behalf.
Politicians in jail who still manage to run in elections are a common enough sight in these parts. Romeo Jalosjos, in prison for raping an 11-year-old girl, repeatedly ran for and won as representative of Zamboanga del Norte from behind bars. Former president Gloria Arroyo, supposedly sick and granted hospital arrest for plunder charges, has been a congresswoman of Pampanga for two terms now, and has filed her papers for a third run.
Conviction alone is no longer the kind of body blow that would necessarily drive a politician out of public life for good. Joseph Estrada, the first Philippine president convicted of plunder, sought to vindicate himself first by running again as president in 2010, even placing second to Noynoy Aquino; and then, in 2013, for mayor of Manila, which he handily won. The practice has become so customary, and public outrage against it so scant, that news about political jailbirds and felons trying to regain power and influence through reelection no longer elicits even a shrug.
There is, however, something quite particularly ugly and unsettling about the news of the Reyes brothers running again for public office, only a couple of weeks after their arrest at a luxury resort. The nonchalance by which these men see their incarceration for a murder charge, and their sense of entitlement over their former political posts in Palawan—as if they were merely retrieving back something they had temporarily set aside—make a mockery of the most basic sense of decency and uprightness, of what’s right and wrong in public office.
The Reyeses are on the dock for the capital crime of masterminding the assassination of Ortega who, in his radio program, was critical of the former governor’s alleged questionable handling of revenues from the Malampaya gas operations in the province. Ortega was gunned down in January 2011; the alleged gunmen and several other suspects were apprehended just days later, a few of them eventually becoming state’s witnesses.
Three weeks after Ortega’s death, his family filed murder charges against the Reyeses and eight other people at the Department of Justice. The first DOJ panel overturned the charges, but following a public uproar, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima formed a second panel, which found probable cause against the Reyeses—a move the brothers contested, successfully, before the Court of Appeals. However, when Puerto Princesa’s Regional Trial Court Branch 52 issued warrants of arrest against the brothers, they vanished—under the law, their flight already an indication of guilt. The Reyeses fled the country reportedly with fake passports, becoming among the country’s most wanted fugitives with a P2-million reward on each for information about them.
From March 2012 to September of this year, the Reyes brothers were on the run—but apparently things were still being resolved in their favor even in their absence. One of the state’s witnesses, detained in Quezon province, was found dead in his cell. The National Bureau of Investigation declared it was suicide, but a re-autopsy determined that the witness had died by strangulation.
Meanwhile, the Reyeses bunked down and lived it up in Phuket, Thailand, staying in a well-appointed villa and driving around in a sports utility vehicle. After they were arrested by Thai police for overstaying and turned over to Philippine authorities, the brothers’ first impulse was to put on the by-now familiar act among political big shots caught in similar straits: claim that they were sick and ask for hospital confinement.
Now they are trying to reclaim their old positions, making it abundantly clear to what lengths they would go to escape accountability for the heinous crime they are facing. The Reyes brothers raised a finger at the law with their flight; they’re doing it again with their candidacies.
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