Remember Gerry Ortega
AFTER FIVE years, the wheels of justice appear to be finally moving in the case of the murder of journalist and environmental activist Gerry Ortega. The Supreme Court threw out last week the petition of the two accused masterminds of the crime, former Palawan governor Joel T. Reyes and his brother Mario, a former mayor of Coron, to stop the Palawan Regional Trial Court from proceeding with their trial; it dismissed their claim that the RTC had no jurisdiction to issue a warrant for their arrest since the Court of Appeals had earlier sided with their contention that there were procedural lapses in the Department of Justice’s preliminary investigation of their case.
“[O]nce the information is filed in court, the court acquires the jurisdiction of the case and any motion to dismiss the case or to determine the accused’s guilt or innocence rests within the sound discretion of the court,” the Supreme Court declared. It also said the RTC’s decision to order the arrest of the brothers in March 2012 “signifies that the trial court has made an independent determination of the existence of probable cause.”
The high court’s ruling only paves the way for the start of the Reyeses’ trial. The way court proceedings go in this country, and with the prosecution’s case built largely on the testimony of Rodolfo Edrad Jr., a former security aide of Joel Reyes, it’s not improbable that the brothers will still elude judgment in the end. They tried to do this when they fled and went into hiding for over three years, until their arrest at a luxury resort in Thailand in September 2015. But the ruling also represents no small victory for Ortega’s family and the public in whose name the murder charges were filed, considering the immense hurdles the powerful Reyeses had set up at every juncture to ensure that this case would never go to trial.
It takes some gall, for one, to file a motion seeking to stop the court from proceeding with the case while on the lam, given the basic tenet of the law that flight from prosecution indicates guilt. But that’s what the Reyeses did—thumb their noses at the law by fleeing the country, then say through their lawyer that they were just “trying to flee from injustice” because they “are unjustly charged. And that they have been framed by people charging them. And because the charge is inbailable they do not want to have to go through the process of incarceration when there’s no valid charge against them.”
By invalid charges, the brothers were referring to the actions of the DOJ, the first investigation panel of which had leaned their way by clearing them of the murder charges. But, in light of additional evidence presented to the DOJ, then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima constituted a second panel which reversed the first panel’s findings and found probable cause against the Reyeses. The brothers then found succor in the Court of Appeals, which cited alleged procedural lapses in the second DOJ panel’s findings.
The CA ruling was what the Reyeses had hoped the Supreme Court would uphold, thereby demolishing the case built so far against them and forcing Ortega’s family to rebuild the charges from scratch. But last week’s decision of the high court not only directed the Palawan RTC to proceed with the trial, it also specifically recognized
De Lima’s authority as then justice secretary to form a second investigative panel if she thought a “probable miscarriage of justice” might arise from a premature exoneration of the Reyeses based on incomplete evidence.
The evidence for the murder charges so far, based on Edrad’s confession, implicates the brothers as the brains behind the assassination of Ortega in January 2011, for his criticism of the mining and environmental policies of Joel Reyes as Palawan governor and Mario Reyes as Coron mayor. Their guilt is ultimately for the court to decide, but in the wake of the heinous crime pinned on them, the Reyeses have not helped their cause any with their flight out of the country and then living it up in an exclusive villa in Phuket instead of squarely facing the charges in their home country.
Now detained at the Puerto Princesa jail, the brothers are apparently hoping for exculpation by some other means by nonchalantly running again for public office. The trial about to begin in their midst should remind Palawan voters exactly what these candidates are.
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