Calling a spade
Business World, 14 March 202


I’d like to put into juxtaposition two ongoing criminal cases, if only to compare and contrast how they have been or are being handled by the government. Three aspects of the cases will be focused on: how long the investigations took; the quality and quantity of evidence taken into account to establish probable cause, and finally, the current status of the respondents. The first case has to do with the murder of broadcaster/commentator/environmentalist Gerry Ortega, and the second case has to do with election sabotage in 2007 in the ARMM.

Let’s start with the similarities. The crimes involved in both cases are capital offenses, carrying with them the penalty of life imprisonment. Therefore, they are non-bailable if the evidence is strong (as determined by first, the prosecutors, and finally, by the judge).

Both crimes involve politicians, defined here as people involved in partisan politics. In the Ortega murder case, former governor Joel T. Reyes of Palawan is accused by Ortega’s widow, Patty, as well as by the person who hired the actual killers, Rodolf O. Edrad, as the ultimate mastermind, the one who hired Edrad to engineer the murder. The other politicians accused with Reyes are his brother, Coron, Palawan Mayor Mario Reyes and former Marinduque governor Jose T. Carrion of Mindoro. In the electoral sabotage case, the principal accused is former president and current Pampanga Congresswoman Gloria Arroyo. Charged along with her are former Comelec chairman Ben Abalos and other Comelec officials, as well as former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan (there are 30 of them).

Interestingly enough, in both crimes the provincial administrators of the provinces in which they were committed are alleged to have played important roles: former Palawan provincial administrator Romeo Seratubias, and former Maguindanao provincial administrator Norie Unas.

Now let’s do the contrasts.

First, on the length of the preliminary investigations.

Gerry Ortega was shot and killed on Jan. 24, 2011. His assailants, non-residents, were almost immediately apprehended (serendipitous, not deliberate); they identified Rodolfo (Bumar) Edrad (non-resident), their town mate, as the one who hired them to kill Ortega. Edrad surrendered well within a fortnight, and in turn identified his former boss Joel Reyes as the person who hired him (for P500,000), Carreon as the person who got brokered the deal, and Mario Reyes as the person who paid him the final fee.

The preliminary investigation conducted by the DoJ took four months, after which, the DoJ indicted the captured gunmen and the surrendered Edrad, but found no probable cause for including the Reyeses and Carreon as defendants, because Edrad’s testimony was uncorroborated, ergo not credible. A hailstorm of protests followed. To her credit, DoJ Secretary Leila de Lima, who had been the election lawyer of Joel Reyes, ordered a reinvestigation.

Two days ago, the DoJ finally came to the conclusion that was staring everybody in the face: that the Reyes brothers should also be charged as well with the murder of Gerry Ortega. From the start of the preliminary investigation to the decision to file charges against the Reyeses, thirteen months had elapsed.

Contrast this with the electoral sabotage case. From the news reports I have pieced together, a joint DoJ-Comelec panel started its preliminary investigation with respect to the involvement of Gloria Arroyo (et al) on Nov. 3, 2011. They then scheduled and held another hearing on Nov. 14, 2011. Apparently the two hearings were sufficient to establish probable cause, because on Nov. 18, the Comelec filed the charges of electoral sabotage against Gloria Arroyo. On that same day, an RTC judge in Pasig not only issued an order of arrest against Arroyo, but did not grant her bail , which meant that he found the evidence against her to be strong. This after barely two hours from the time he received the Comelec charges. He must have been a speed-reader.

Thus, from the start of the preliminary investigation to the filing of charges and the arrest of Arroyo, it took 15 days (and only two hearings) for the Comelec to convince itself that Arroyo was guilty enough to be arrested and held without bail.

Now let’s look at the evidence presented. In the Ortega case, Edrad gave first person testimony — conversations with Carrion and the Reyes brothers, the wheres, the whens, the whos, the hows, that could not be impeached. No holes in his story. It was also established that neither Edrad nor his hired henchmen had any personal acquaintance with Ortega, and had to be shown a picture of him (provided allegedly by Reyes), thus buttressing his story that he was merely a hired hand. Plus, the gun that was used to kill Ortega was owned by Palawan Provincial Administrator Seratubias, who could not satisfactorily explain why he could not possibly have been involved in the plot to kill Ortega. Then there was the admission from Mario Reyes , as Edrad had testified, that he had indeed given Edrad money on the night after Ortega’s murder (the amount that changed hands was the bone of contention — P5,000, said Reyes, and P500,000, said Edrad). Moreover, while the Reyeses said that they scarcely knew Edrad, there was the smoking gun that came out during the reinvestigation: the fact that several texts were exchanged between Edrad and Reyes, in the month leading to the Ortega killing, 16 of which were exchanged on the day itself (costing a pretty penny, since Reyes was abroad at the time). It was no longer really a matter of probable cause, it looked more like guilt beyond reasonable doubt was already established.

In the Arroyo case, the only evidence against her was the “eyewitness” report of Maguindanao Provincial Administrator Norie Unas, whose story strains credulity from the beginning: he “overheard” Gloria Arroyo giving orders to Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan “sa isang sulok” in Malacañang that the results in the senatorial elections in Maguindanao should be 12-0. And then what is clearly hearsay: Ampatuan told him that he (Ampatuan) could not say no to the Arroyos. Norie Unas, by the way, was accused of being in charge of the backhoe operations for the burial of the Maguindanao massacre victims. Moreover, his story was never corroborated, and, following DoJ logic (in the Ortega case), should never have been given credence. Many holes in the story. Yet, it was not only given credence, but it was considered strong enough evidence so that Gloria Arroyo was not granted bail. Charged with electoral sabotage in an election in which she was not even a candidate.

Does this all look like the evenhanded application of the rule of law?