MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Two former Palawan officials implicated in the murder of broadcast journalist Gerry Ortega were captured in Thailand on Sunday, September 20, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima confirmed on Monday, September 21.
Joel Reyes, the former governor of Palawan island, and his brother Mario, former Coron mayor, were detained on the Thai holiday island of Phuket on Sunday, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said.
The Reyes brothers are facing murder charges over the 2011 death of Gerry Ortega, a prominent Palawan environment activist who had also used a radio show he hosted to frequently accuse the Reyes brothers of massive graft.
The Reyes brothers went missing in early 2012 after an arrest warrant was issued for them, and had not been seen since.
In a text message to reporters, De Lima said that according to the Bureau of Immigration, Interpol-Manila has confirmed information regarding the “arrest of the Reyes brothers and their impending deportation” to the Philippines.
The two had a P2-million bounty for their capture.
Ortega’s daughter: ‘Long fight’
In a phone interview with Rappler, Ortega’s daughter, Michaella, said her family “did not expect this to happen” this week.
“It’s a welcome surprise,” Michaella said.
Still, her family keeps “a guarded sense of hope.”
“Priorities have shifted,” she added. The Ortega family, for one, wants to ensure that the Reyes brothers “get home without special treatment.”
Michaella said, “It’s going to be a long fight.”
Ortega’s widow, Patty, told Agence France-Presse: “We still feel anxiety. Our judicial system is not that fast. We know our opponents have a lot of advantages. They have money, influence. They slipped through immigration. So it is not far from our thoughts that something else might happen.”
Coloma for his part said: “The arrest of the long wanted Reyes brothers provides an opportunity for pursuing the ends of justice. We acknowledge the efforts of Interpol and Thai authorities in making this possible.”
Philippines’ ‘culture of impunity’
According to a police source, the Reyes brothers were captured in Phuket, Thailand by immigration officers for overstaying.
The intelligence source said the Reyes brothers have been in Thailand for several years now. Travel records of the two showed they went to Thailand in 2012 but did not book a return flight.
The Reyes’ brothers passports had been revoked by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs as early as September 2012.
In 2011, Ortega was shot in the head at point-blank range while shopping in the capital of Palawan, an island known as the Philippines’ last environmental frontier but which has suffered from illegal logging, mining, and overfishing.
The gunman was caught trying to flee the scene and police said his weapon was owned by one of Joel Reyes’s lawyers.
Aside from alleged environmental crimes, Ortega had accused Joel Reyes of syphoning off millions of dollars in revenues from a gasfield off the coast of Palawan when he was governor.
The brothers’ escape reinforced the Philippines’ reputation for having a “culture of impunity,” with powerful men free to kill or intimidate political opponents, journalists, and other critics without any punishment.
At least 168 journalists or media workers have been killed since the restoration of democracy in the Philippines in 1986, but only 13 cases have seen murder convictions, according to local press groups. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com