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13 years and 3 warrants: Gerry Ortega murder moves to new court

Jairo Bolledo

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13 years and 3 warrants: Gerry Ortega murder moves to new court

SLAIN. File photo of Dr. Gerry Ortega.

Justice for Dr. Gerry Ortega Facebook page

The Supreme Court moves the trial to Quezon City due to 'limited resources' to secure suspect and former Palawan governor Joel Reyes in court. Reyes is still at large.

MANILA, Philippines – Wednesday, January 24, was the 13th year anniversary of the killing of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerry Ortega, marked by a protest against the latest development in a very protracted trial.

The Supreme Court Second Division decided in December 2023 to move the trial from Puerto Princesa, Palawan to Quezon City, siding with the plea of the suspect, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes, that he was at risk in Palawan due to his prominence and the limited resources to secure him. Reyes has evaded arrest for the last three years.

The Supreme Court directed the new judge “to decide the case with dispatch.”

“Recent developments in legal proceedings may risk further delays. Haven’t we already waited too long? Isn’t 13 years enough?” said the Ortega family as relayed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment which staged a protest in front of the Supreme Court Wednesday, January 24.

Tingin po natin, hindi po ito magandang development dahil ang tingin po ng pamilya ay maayos naman [ang] itinatakbo ng kaso sa Puerto Princesa. And in fact, naglabas ng warrant of arrest ang local court sa Puerto Princesa na laban kay alleged mastermind Joel Reyes na hanggang ngayon ay hindi pa rin naaaresto at nakukulong ng mga awtoridad,” NUJP secretary general Len Olea said.

(We think, this is not a good development because the Ortega family thinks things were going well in Puerto Princesa. And in fact, the local court issued a warrant of arrest against alleged mastermind Joel Reyes, who until now has yet to be arrested by authorities.)

Protracted trial

Ortega was gunned down in a thrift store in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan in 2011. A staunch critic of Reyes, Ortega exposed corruption in Palawan and said the former Palawan governor allegedly misused the Malampaya fund, or the profits from the exploration of the Malampaya gas and oil fields in Palawan.

In each step of the case, from prosecutors to the Supreme Court, Reyes had secured a win only to be reversed by the same body.

He was earlier cleared by prosecutors, but a second panel constituted by former justice secretary Leila de Lima charged him in 2012, which resulted in the first warrant by the Puerto Princesa court that year. Reyes was already in hiding when the warrant was issued. He was arrested in Thailand only in 2015.

Reyes was released in 2018 when the Court of Appeals decided in his favor and stopped the trial in Palawan. With the ponente of that ruling retired, a second set of justices, previously dissenters, reversed the decision in 2019 and ordered Reyes’ rearrest. This resulted in the revival of the murder trial.

During this time, Reyes was also convicted of graft at the Sandiganbayan for a separate case, and was ordered jailed by the court even if his appeal was pending, due to his being a flight risk. In 2021, it shocked the family that Reyes was apparently released and had managed to file his candidacy for governor of Palawan for the 2022 elections.

Not a gubernatorial candidacy nor a supposed police manhunt, could find Reyes to send him back to jail.

While Reyes lost the elections, he won another round in the Supreme Court in March 2022 when the Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop, again, the trial in Palawan and to prohibit the implementation of the warrant against him.

A year after, in March 2023, the Supreme Court lifted the TRO and resumed the trial again, and ordered the “immediate re-arrest” of Reyes.

The transfer of the trial to Quezon City “finds us on the brink of renewed grief,” said the Ortega family.

End impunity

Ortega’s death anniversary, and the protest by different groups, coincided with the day that the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice (DOJ) met United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Irene Khan.

Kaya ang panawagan po natin kay Special Rapporteur Irene Khan ay kilalanin itong problema na kawalan ng pananagutan sa mga perpetrators ng killing at to push forward recommendations that would address impunity (That’s why our request for Special Rapporteur Irene Khan is to acknowledge the problem on the lack of accountability from perpetrators and to push forward recommendations that would address impunity),” NUJP’s Olea told reporters.

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of human rights group Karapatan, said: “This case has spanned three administrations…. justice has been extremely delayed and denied for the Ortega family, and we ask why?”

For Danilova Molintas, secretariat member of Kalikasan PNE, the government should also pass legislation that would protect journalists and environmental defenders like Ortega.

“I think we can start with pushing their existing bills that are filed in congress – the Human Rights Defenders Bill and the Environmental Defenders Bill. If we can pass that, then from there and we can implement that, you’ll see that the provisions of those bills are real,” Molintas told Rappler. – with research from Precious Altura/Rappler.com

Precious Altura is an intern with Rappler’s Justice, Human Rights and Crime Cluster. She is a senior journalism student at Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Communication. Learn more about Rappler’s internship program here.

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.