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Court grants petition of alleged mastermind in Filipino journalist's murder

UPDATE: IFJ calls for an investigation into the suspicious death of Ortega murder witness (IFJ, 11 February 2013)

(CMFR/IFEX) - 6 December 2012 - As the press was commemorating the third year of the Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre last 23 November 2012, the Court of Appeals in Manila was granting an alleged mastermind's petition to nullify his reinvestigation in connection with the killing of broadcaster Gerardo Ortega.

The Special Fifth Division of the Court of Appeals said in its 23 November 2012 decision that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima erred in creating a new panel to re-investigate the alleged involvement of former Palawan governor Mario Joel Reyes, Coron town mayor Mario Reyes Jr. and four others in the Ortega slay.

The court was acting on former governor Reyes's 3 October 2011 petition for certiorari and prohibition against the Department of Justice, the second panel of prosecutors and widow Patria Ortega.

The court said De Lima erred "when she refused/failed to exercise her power to review the resolution of the original Panel despite a petition for review . . . but instead created another Panel of Prosecutors to conduct reinvestigation, without alleging compelling reason." (Justice Sec. Leila de Lima has yet to act on the 26 September 2011 petition for review filed by widow Patria Ortega.)

The court also reprimanded the second panel for "exceed(ing) the authority vested upon it by the Secretary of Justice" when it modified the decision of the first panel finding no probable cause to indict the Reyeses. The court said the panel was only tasked to review new evidence introduced by both parties.

The Justice Secretary created the second panel on 7 September 2011, after the first panel of investigating prosecutors dismissed on 2 September 2011 the motions for reinvestigation and partial reconsideration filed by Ortega's widow. (Last 13 March 2012, the second panel recommended the filing of murder charges against the Reyeses, lawyer and former provincial administrator Romeo Seratubias, and security personnel Valentin Lecias and Arturo Regalado. It, however, affirmed the dismissal of the charges against former Marinduque Gov. Jose Antonio Carrion. Arrest warrants had been issued against the Reyeses and Seratubias.)

Consequently, the Appellate court said the 12 March 2012 resolution finding probable cause to file murder charges against the Reyeses, Seratubias, Regalado and Lecias was also null and void. Last March 2012, the second panel of investigating prosecutors reversed the 8 June 2011 DOJ resolution dismissing the murder complaints against them.

Not yet dismissed

However, in a press conference last 29 November, Ortega's widow Patria and her legal counsel Alex Avisado Jr. reiterated that the murder trial of the Reyeses and the three other suspects continues.

Avisado explained that there was no order recalling the murder charges as well as the arrest warrants for the Reyeses. He added that the Court of Appeals only dealt with the authority of the Justice Secretary to form a second panel of prosecutors to re-investigate, and not on the merits of the case.

"The technicality only says that Sec. de Lima has no authority to create a second panel overturning the resolution of the first panel. The reason they nullified or set aside the creation of the second panel was to give Sec. de Lima an opportunity to resolve the petition for review," said Atty. Avisado.

Meanwhile, Patria Ortega asked President Benigno Aquino III and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas to speed up the arrest of the Reyeses, who have been variously reported as hiding in the country or abroad.

"We appeal to President PNoy for an intensive search for these fugitives and also to Sec. Roxas to create a team that will thoroughly look for the Reyeses. As of the moment I don't feel that there is a serious effort because there is hardly any information as to where they are," said Mrs. Ortega.

A hired gunman shot dead Palawan-based broadcaster Ortega last 24 January 2011 in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. Branch 52 of the Regional Trial Court of Puerto Princesa is currently hearing the murder case against the alleged masterminds, the gunman and other suspects.

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