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Release of alleged journalist killer, outrages activists

Philippine court frees former provincial governor suspected of murder, suggesting justice still favors influential.

 
Student activists protest against media killings in the Philippines during a candle-lit demonstration in Manila. (Photo by Jimmy Domingo)
Manila: 

Media people and environmental activists in the Philippines have expressed outrage following the release of a former governor suspected of being behind the 2011 murder of a Filipino journalist.

The National Press Club of the Philippines questioned the court's decision, ordering the release on Jan. 5 of Joel Reyes, the main suspect in the killing of broadcaster Gerry Ortega in Palawan province in 2011.

Paul Gutierrez, press club president, said the court decision was based on a "legal technicality that, under close scrutiny ... is also clearly highly questionable."

Environmental activists also expressed "utmost disgust" over the court's decision, saying that it "sets the tone for more emboldened killings of environmental defenders."

"This move adds to the reckless impunity and trampling of human rights we continue to experience," said Leon Dulce, deputy national coordinator of the Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment.

In a statement, Ortega's daughter Michaella said the family was "still recovering from the shock" of the court decision which came weeks ahead of the seventh anniversary of the journalist's killing.

Ortega was known for promoting crocodile farming in the country and lauded as "hero of the environment" for his anti-mining advocacy in the province.

Former governor Reyes was indicted for the murder after the gunman named him as the mastermind after his arrest.

The Philippine Court of Appeals, however, ordered Reyes released from custody, saying the warrant for his arrest was void due to "inconsistencies" in the testimony of witnesses.

Presidential Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said the presidential palace "will exercise all legal options to reverse this decision by the [Court of Appeals]."

"The government will exhaust all remedies including filing a motion for reconsideration," said Roque, adding that the ruling "is a very sad development for freedom of the press in this country."

Press club president Gutierrez said the court ruling "conveys that the culture of impunity remains ascendant in our society and that justice remains tilted in favor of the moneyed and the influential."

A lone assailant shot and killed Ortega on Jan. 24, 2011. Police later arrested the assassin who confessed to the crime and implicated Reyes and his brother, former town mayor Mario Reyes.

The Reyes brothers fled the country in 2012 after the Department of Justice indicted them.

In 2015, the former governor was arrested in Thailand where he was found hiding to evade prosecution.

The Philippines has been in the top 20 deadliest countries for journalists since 2007 with at least 176 journalists killed since 1986 when democracy was restored after the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Source: UCAN

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