Palawan ex-gov Joel Reyes, murder suspect, released

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Former Palawan governor Joel Reyes has been released from jail after the Court of Appeals ruled that the Puerto Princesa Regional Trial Court (RTC) had no basis to hold him for trial over the murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerry Ortega.

Reyes' lawyer, Demetrio Custodio, confirmed to Rappler that Reyes was released from jail on Friday, January 5.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the Puerto Princesa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 52 had no basis to find probable cause and issue a warrant of arrest against Reyes.

"Branch 52 is prohibited slash barred from proceeding with the case," Custodio said in a phone interview.

In August 2017, the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan's Third Division convicted Reyes of one count of graft and sentenced him to 6 to 8 years in prison over an illegal small-scale mining permit in Puerto Princesa in 2006.

Custodio said they have already filed an appeal before the Sandiganbayan and that it has "no bearing" on the release order of the CA in the Ortega murder case.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, chairman of the 3rd Division which convicted Reyes, said the former Palawan official must pay additional bail to keep his freedom.

"As a matter of general policy pending resolution of the Motion for Reconsideration, the court allows the accused provisional liberty provided he/she doubles the amount of bond originally required for his/her temporary liberty," Tang said in a text message.

Reyes had also been arraigned for 36 counts of graft over the Malampaya fund scam, but Custodio said his client had posted bail for that case, meaning the bases of his  liberty have been covered, at this point.

Ferdinand Topacio, another one of Reyes' lawyers, said they are ready to comply to any Sandiganbayan directives, including personally appearing before the anti-graft court.

"Rest assured that Gov Joel Reyes is not a flight risk and will vindicate himself in due time," Topacio said.

Reinvestigation?

Technically, the latest CA ruling decision did not clear Reyes of murder charges but it nullified the finding of probable cause, and the issuance of an arrest warrant by the local court.

Custodio said that if the Ortega family wants to pursue the case, they can do so with an option for reinvestigation. 

"They would have to go through the process again and go through preliminary investigation again," Custodio said. 

Custodio quoted the CA decision which said that the "uncorroborated statement" of witness Rodolfo "Bumar" Edrad is "insufficient."

"If they want to file again and it will be based on the same evidence, then it will suffer the same fate. They can present another witness but I doubt if there is another, because then he should have been presented before," Custodio said.

The Puerto Princesa RTC's jurisdiction over the Ortega case was elevated to the Supreme Court, which  upheld the decision over the jurisdiction of the Puerto Princesa RTC, but over the trial of Reyes' brother, Mario Joel Reyes.

Mario Joel Reyes was granted bail in May 2016 but the bail petition of the former Palawan governor was denied in  September 2016.

The brothers were arrested in Thailand in 2015 after 3 years in hiding.

Ortega was killed in January 2011 in Puerto Princesa City. His reports on the alleged misuse of funds in Palawan, later identified to be part of the Malampaya fund scam, supposedly led to his killing. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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