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Lawyer advises Reyes brothers to remain in hiding

Former Palawan governor Joel Reyes
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- The lawyer of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, mayor of Coron town, accused of masterminding the murder of broadcaster and environmental activist Gerry Ortega, has advised them to remain in hiding amid public outrage over the case.

The brothers have been on the run and are believed to have fled the country since March when a local court ordered their arrest.

Ortega was gunned down in January of 2011 in a case that rights groups said highlighted the "culture of impunity" in the country, where politicians routinely attack their critics without being punished.

"We would file a motion with the court to get a definitive statement on the lifting of a warrant of arrest against them," the brothers’ lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, told AFP.

"Until we get that, I would suggest to them not to surface first," Topacio said. "They are fugitives from injustice."

Topacio said he has had no contact with his clients since they went underground, and immigration officials have said they may have escaped overseas using fake passports.

Nestor Burgos, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the government's failure to arrest the high-profile fugitives showed powerful politicians remained untouchable.

"This is a complete mockery of justice," Burgos told AFP. "This shows to the public that these people who have power, money and are influential can get away with murder, literally."

Ortega, a veterinarian known widely as "Doc Gerry," was shot dead in a clothes shop shortly after he had just finished his radio show.

He had repeatedly accused Reyes of massive corruption during his time as governor, and was an outspoken critic of mining activities that he said damaged pristine Palawan.

The gunman was immediately arrested and ownership of the weapon was traced to a close Reyes aide.

Another suspect who had turned state witness also implicated the brothers in the plot.

Despite the strong evidence however, prosecutors initially cleared the Reyes duo, triggering a public outcry and an intense social media campaign that forced the justice department to reinvestigate the case.

In March, a new investigation panel from the justice department ruled there was probable cause to charge the two, and a Palawan court subsequently issued an arrest warrant.

The case however suffered a setback Tuesday, when the Court of Appeals invalidated the findings of the justice department on a technicality, potentially voiding the arrest warrant.

"This ruling is a setback, not only to the Ortega case, but also to the other cases of unsolved murders of journalists," Burgos said.