A Double Standard of Justice: The Gerry Ortega case
By Inday Espina-Varona
A couple of months back, the nation was glued to the spectacle of government operatives barring former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from leaving the country. The incident happened in the absence of any hold order on the much-maligned former Chief Executive. There was no hold order because no court had yet issued an arrest warrant for her. In fact, no case against Mrs. Arroyo had even reached the courts yet. What the government had was a watchlist order (WLO) on President Benigno Aquino’s predecessor. This watchlist order was the subject of a Supreme Court temporary restraining order (TRO) — a TRO that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima refused to implement.
I will not discuss the merits of the TRO or the WLO — the latter the same weapon Mrs. Arroyo had wielded against her political opposition. The TRO later became part of the Aquino administration’s impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Renato Corona. Mrs. Arroyo has since been arraigned and remains in hospital arrest due to an ailment affecting the spine. The Chief Justice is still battling it out in his impeachment trial.
The administration is confident the Senate impeachment court will find Corona guilty. Majority of Filipinos think he could be guilty, but prefer to leave the decision to the sentor-judges. The latter — which has been borne out survey after survey — is not making Mr. Aquino or his allies happy. There has been plenty of talk about we, the people, waging war against the CJ in the name of Justice. But this isn’t about Mrs. Arroyo or the Chief Justice. It is about this administration’s warped view on justice. It is about amazing leaps of logic and disturbing signs that more than hint that, indeed, some in this benighted nation are more equal than others.
In January 2010, a gunman killed Palawan environmentalist Gerry Ortega. It was daylight. It was in a crowded second-hand clothes shop; Gerry was buying clothes for his offspring.
Alert townfolk managed to corner the suspect. He squealed. Shortly after, three others were arrested: two lookouts and the recruiter, Rodolfo Edrad, a former bodyguard of former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes. Edrad confessed that the gun used in Ortega’s slay belonged to Romeo Seratubias, former provincial administrator. Seratubias did not deny this during the preliminary investigation.
The Justice Department initially dismissed the charges against Seratubias, Reyes and his brother, Coron Mayor Mario Reyes Jr., and two aides. The Secretary of the Justice inhibited from the case. De Lima was once election lawyer for the former governor.
Ortega’s kin, environmentalists and media groups refused to back down. The discovery of 84 text messages between the former governor and Edrad at around the time of the murder finally forced a re-investigation. State prosecutors eventually filed murder raps against the brothers and their cohorts.
On Tuesday, the regional trial court in Palawan issued arrest warrants for Reyes and company. By that time, he had disappeared. His brother had bid farewell to fellow local politicians in Coron.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) launched a manhunt. But a day after, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo did the unthinkable. He said the government would give Reyes until the end of the week to surrender.
It was an irresponsible statement to make. There was a legitimate arrest warrant. The case was murder, under circumstances showing great willingness by suspects to ruthlessly punish their enemies. Murder is a non-bailable crime. The cops were on a manhunt, for god’s sake.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines was “aghast” at Robredo’s move.
“What Robredo is in effect doing is ordering law enforcement agencies not to obey the lawful order of the Palawan regional trial court to place the Reyes brothers under arrest and stand trial for the Ortega murder.
“What right does he have, what authority, to openly issue such an order in defiance of our laws?
“Surely Robredo knows that our law enforcers are in possession of the warrants, having already served one on former Palawan provincial administrator Romeo Seratubias.
“Neither can we imagine that Robredo is unaware that every day the warrants are not served increases the chances of the Reyes brothers escaping justice, either by actual flight or by allowing their lawyers to delay their arrest and trial.”
The following day, Thursday, Reyes came out defiant, saying he would take his sweet time.
“Haharapin ko sa takdang oras ang mga paratang at akusasyon na ito. Nandito lang ako sa inyong piling, nagtatago sa inyong puso. Hindi ko tatakbuhan ang hustisya ngunit para maiwasan ang patuloy na pang-aapi at pag-aalipusta at pagbibintang ng walang basehan,” he said.
As if that wasn’t enough of an insult against Lady Justice and Ortega’s heirs, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda — a lawyer — gave the Palace stamp of approval on Robredo’s order. If you think the DILG Secretary’s move is outrageous, Lacierda’s justification will make you puke. This morning Lacierda explained the deferment as a sign OF DEFERENCE TO HIS (Reyes’) POSITION AS A FORMER GOVERNOR.
It is breath-taking in its ignorance of the law. It is breath-taking in its display of entitlement.
As I’m ending the blog, I get word that Malacanang has turned around. The manhunt is on. Again.
That’s small consolation. But it doesn’t erase the fact that an alter-ego of the President, his spokesman no less, has given us a glimpse into their heart of darkness.