Reyes brothers to stay in hiding, Topacio says

Posted at 11/28/12 8:50 PM

MANILA, Philippines - A fugitive Philippine politician and his brother accused of murdering an environmental activist will remain in hiding amid public outrage over the case, their lawyer said.

Joel Reyes, former governor of the island province of Palawan, and his brother Mario, have been on the run since March when a local court ordered their arrest for the fatal shooting of broadcaster Gerry Ortega.

Ortega was gunned down in January of 2011 in a case that rights groups said highlighted the "culture of impunity" in the Southeast Asian 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," their 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 had 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 an appeals court 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.