THE long arm of the law has finally caught up with former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, the principal suspects in the killing of a prominent broadcast journalist and anti-corruption crusader.
They were arrested in Thailand after more than three years on the run, Malacañang announced on Monday.
The Reyes brothers have a P2 million bounty each on their heads.
They were detained on the Thai holiday island of Phuket on Sunday, said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
“Per BI [Bureau of Immigration], the Interpol-Manila has confirmed info, re: the arrest of the Reyes brothers last night by Thai police in Phuket. BI immigration authorities now processing their deportation papers,” Coloma quoted Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as saying.
The two are facing murder charges over the 2011 death of Gerry Ortega, a prominent Palawan environment activist who had also used a radio show he hosted to frequently accuse the Reyes brothers of massive graft. Mario was mayor of Coron town.
The brothers went missing in early 2012 after an arrest warrant was issued for them, and had not been seen since.
Last Friday, relatives of Ortega sent a letter dated September 18, 2015 to de Lima calling for the speedy arrest of the Reyes brothers.
Attached to the letter was a petition signed by 32,162 ordinary Filipinos who were supporting their call for justice.
“The arrest of the long-wanted Reyes brothers provides an opportunity for pursuing the ends of justice,” Coloma said in a statement.
He thanked Interpol and the Royal Thai police for their help in arresting the Reyes brothers but did not provide further details.
Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the arrest of the Reyeses is a fulfillment of a promise by President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
“The President has said that the government will go after the fugitives and the recent arrest of Governor Reyes and his brother proves the resolve of the government. We thank the cooperation and assistance of the Thailand government in the arrest of the Reyes brothers,” Lacierda added.
Ortega was shot in the head at point-blank range while shopping in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan, an island known as the Philippines’ last environmental frontier but which has suffered from illegal logging, mining and overfishing.
The gunman, Marlon Recamata, was caught trying to flee the scene and police said his weapon was owned by one of Joel Reyes’s lawyers.
Recamata’s arrest led to the arrest of several others who pointed to the Reyes brothers as the mastermind.
Aside from alleged environmental crimes, Ortega had accused Joel Reyes of siphoning off millions of dollars in revenues from a gas field off the coast of Palawan when he was governor.
The brothers’ escape reinforced the Philippines’ reputation for having a “culture of impunity,” with powerful men free to kill or intimidate political opponents, journalists and other critics without any punishment.
At least 168 journalists or media workers have been killed since the restoration of democracy in the Philippines in 1986 but only 13 cases have seen murder convictions, according to local press groups.
Patty Ortega, widow of the murdered activist, said a task force assigned to capture high-profile fugitives had informed her of the arrests.
She expressed relief but also said she was worried about whether the Reyes brothers could still evade justice.
“We still feel anxiety. Our judicial system is not that fast. We know our opponents have a lot of advantages. They have money, influence. They slipped through immigration. So it is not far from our thoughts that something else might happen,” Mrs. Ortega said.
“I want to see them handcuffed and facing a court and in jail,” she added.
Ortega’s daughter Mika said they want the Reyes brothers to be treated just like any other crime suspects.
“They should not be given special treatment,” she told The Manila Times.
The young Ortega said they have mixed emotions after the arrest of the brothers.
On one hand, she said the family is “shocked with this welcome development” while on the other hand, she said they treat this development with “guarded sense of hope.”
“We did not expect this to happen this fast right now. We were gathering more than 32,000 signatures for our campaign to press the government to get the two. It is a welcome surprise for us and right now, we are shifting our priorities. Mahaba pa any laban na ito at madami pang dapat gawin [It’s a long legal fight ahead and there’s so much to do],” Mrs. Ortega said.
Her daughter said they want the Reyes brothers to be deported immediately and be incarcerated in a local jail.
“Five years the evidence have been appreciated. This is a case where you have a direct evidence against the masterminds. This will test the political will of the government. If they want to make history and prove the guilt of a mastermind behind a case of media killing, then this is the right time,” she pointed out.
Mrs. Ortega said the arrest of the former Palawan governor and his brother bodes well for all victims of media killings, noting that 30 years since the first recorded case of a journalist being killed in the line of duty, her father’s case is by far the only one wherein a mastermind has been named.
“For 30 years we haven’t jailed a mastermind, This time they can do that for real and they have a fighting chance to do that,” she added.
Our family went beyond our obligations as victims. We made sure that the case is not forgotten, making sure that the process will continue. And now we want to make sure that the brothers will come home immediately,” Mrs. Ortega said.
According to her, they are planning to form a support group forfamilies of all victims of journalist killings, which has reached 175 since democracy was restored in 1986. Under the Aquino government, around 40 journalists had been killed so far, making it the fastest in comparison to the previous administration.
“We coordinate with them [families of victims]. We text-message and comfort each other. We plan in the future to form a support group and we are still in the discussion phase. It is still very loose,” she said.
The Reyes brothers will soon be deported, a source of this paper at the National Bureau of Investigation said.
“Most probably they will be deported since it is the fastest procedure. We are already coordinating with Thai authorities,” said the source who asked not to be named.
The NBI informant likened the case of the Reyes brothers to that of Jose Maria Panlilio and American Timothy Kaufman who were facing murder charges in the Philippines and were deported from Thailand.
Panlilio, son of socialite and jeweler Fe Sarmiento Panlilio, was arrested in Pattaya in June 2010. He was the suspect in the murder of Gilbert Gutierrez and Ariel Real.
Timothy Kaufman of Knoxville, Tennessee was arrested in New York in 2013. He was deported last August for the murder of former Irish police officer David Balmer and his girlfriend Elma de Guia in Angeles City, Pampanga.
The NBI official told the Times that Panlilio could be charged with violating immigration laws.
“His passport was either canceled or has lapsed. Without a valid passport, he is now illegally staying in Thailand. Therefore, he is subject for deportation or extradition. But deportation is much simple and easier to implement,” he said.
WITH PNA AND AFP