The family of murdered journalist Dr. Gerry Ortega launched a petition signature campaign this week on the occasion of his birthday, challenging the government to once and for all capture the accused mastermind, ex governor Joel Reyes and his brother, who have been in hiding for nearly four years already.
The murder trial has been proceeding slowly, with the fugitive suspects represented by topnotch lawyers who swear they don’t have direct knowledge about their clients’ whereabouts. The defense’s efforts for some time had been directed at the Court of Appeals, as they try to nullify the evidence gathered by investigators and the filing of the case by the Department of Justice, and thus get the brothers off the hook.
In the last few weeks, these efforts seem to have shifted to the Supreme Court and to the proverbial court of public opinion. Someone is trying to paint a picture in the national media that there is a spontaneous groundswell of public opinion in Palawan that the Reyes brothers, not just Doc Gerry, are the victims of injustice.
At least two columnists from the two major newspapers recently published one starkly similar script that can only happen if there’s a PR operator pushing it. They said that there are supposedly 15,000 Palawenos who have signed a petition to the Supreme Court siding with the brothers and that these signatures were a spontaneous action of these people that happened in a short period of four days. I expect two more columnists to joint this chorus, if my suspicion of who’s behind the PR operation is correct.
This movement in the Reyes camp invites speculation that they know something we don’t about how and when the SC will rule on their petition to stop the Regional Trial Court from proceeding with the trial. Will the Reyes brothers be absolved on a technicality? Will the SC uphold Reyes’ defense that the second preliminary investigation conducted by the Department of Justice was illegal considering that the first preliminary investigation came up short in establishing a prima facie case against the suspects?
If the Reyes brothers become free men, will they rejoin Palawan politics? Will ex-governor Reyes challenge incumbent Jose Chaves Alvarez for the governorship and thus set the stage for an interesting matchup in lieu of Alvarez running unopposed? These questions however may be getting too far ahead of the scenario, as the Reyes brothers will have to be arrested first if they come out into the open, with a P4 million bounty on their head put up by Malacanang.
Embedded in the two column articles mentioned above was the assertion that JTR was a victim of a political conspiracy, although the columnists stopped short of suggesting contrary evidence or naming who the conspirators might be. JTR himself had offered this defense when he was still attending to the first instance of the DOJ’s preliminary investigation of his case. He submitted affidavits stating that he had no criminal record and claiming that he had no motive to order the killing of Ortega. By deduction, he was in effect saying that the set of evidence gathered by investigators that directly linked his people to the murder must have been a result of the real mastermind manipulating him and everyone else who executed the ghastly assassination of Doc Gerry.
If the SC reverses the CA, the trial against JTR and others will continue unimpeded and the Reyes brothers will only have two choices – dispute the evidence in court or hide forever and continue claiming a frame-up through paid columnists. On the other hand, an SC ruling upholding the CA could mean the withdrawal of the case in the RTC on a technicality – that the DOJ erred in the manner of its filing. The murder case then returns to square one and the Ortega family will have no choice but to refile their complaint against the same set of suspects with the same set of evidence linking JTR to the murder before the DOJ, and hope for the best.
The scenario of a dismissal of the case against ex-Gov. Reyes will have far-reaching repercussions in the forthcoming local elections next year. It has already impacted it at the outset, bringing together two main political players who were otherwise bitterly at war – former City Mayor Edward Hagedorn and Gov. Jose Chaves Alvarez. Both had been allies until the recent recall elections in the City when Alvarez supported incumbent Mayor Lucilo Bayron to the chagrin and frustration of Hagedorn.
The Ortega murder case seems to have thawed the otherwise cold relationship between the two players, since the victim was both their close supporter at one point. Hagedorn and Alvarez, according to the Ortega family, have separately expressed support to their petition and have expressed willingness to work together to rally public opinion to pressure the national government into launching a no nonsense manhunt on the brothers.
This is significant, beneath the backdrop of a bitter word war on radio where commentators identified with both sides have been sliming each other on a daily basis.Since Hagedorn had announced plans to run battle again with Bayron for the mayoralty, the question that has emerged is whether Alvarez will continue to support Bayron or remain neutral. Hagedorn claims that he only lost the recall because of Alvarez’ intervention, adding that what turned the tide against him was the intimidation done by thousands of motorcycle riding men that Alvarez’s people mobilized from the countryside.
The ball is also in the court of Mayor Lucilo Bayron, whose political mass base includes a chunk of JTR loyalists. It remains to be seen if he will even sign the petition being solicited by the family from practically every incumbent political leader regardless of their affiliation.
A resurgent JTR could also boost the waning political star of former Governor Baham Mitra as both were allies before they both lost footing in Palawan politics perhaps partly because of the stigma of Gerry Ortega’s murder.
The petition also seeks to put pressure on interior secretary Mar Roxas, the anointed success of PNoy, to produce results on the manhunt for the Reyes brothers before he steps down to campaign.
Doc Gerry must be grinning from heaven how he’s managed to stir Palawan’s political cauldron as he celebrated his birthday this week.