(Manila) - Philippine authorities should ensure that those who planned and financed the killing of an environmental activist in 2011 are arrested and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today.
In the first conviction for an extrajudicial killing since President Benigno S. Aquino III came to office in 2010, a court in Palawan on May 7, 2013, sentenced Marlon Recamata to 40 years in prison for the January 24, 2011, killing of Gerry Ortega. Recamata had been arrested moments after shooting Ortega and subsequently confessed to the crime, implicating others.
"The conviction of the gunman in the killing of activist Gerry Ortega is an overdue milestone for the Aquino administration," said Brad Adams, Asia director. "But the alleged mastermind is still at large and should not escape justice."
While in custody, Recamata identified his accomplices, among them Rodolfo Edrad, a former soldier who allegedly coordinated the plot. Edrad in turn accused Joel Reyes, who was governor of Palawan from 2003 to 2010, as the author of the crime. Ortega had hosted a radio program on environmental issues and corruption that frequently criticized Reyes. The gun used in the murder was later traced to a person who had served as Reyes' provincial administrator.
Seven other suspects in the case were taken into custody. Five are awaiting trial, one suspect died of natural causes while a second died under unclear circumstances.
In the past decade, government officials and members of the security forces in the Philippines have been implicated in several hundred politically motivated killings, but successive administrations have failed to obtain any convictions. The murder of Ortega, among the first extrajudicial killings during the Aquino administration, was one of the very few where the authorities gathered strong evidence and witnesses against the suspects.
In June 2011, a Department of Justice panel formed to investigate the case recommended the filing of charges against four suspects. But it removed Reyes, the former governor, his brother Mario, and five others, citing a lack of evidence.
After Ortega's family protested the failure to charge Reyes and others, the Justice Department created a new panel to re-investigate the case, which in March 2012 proposed filing charges against Reyes, his brother, and three others. After arrest warrants were issued against Reyes and his brother, they evaded arrest by fleeing the country. Their lawyers, meanwhile, went to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in March 2013 that the charges against the Reyes brothers and the others should be dropped, citing judicial overreach by the Justice Department. The case is now pending in the Supreme Court.
Among his environmental activities, Ortega hosted a radio program in which he talked about environmental degradation, corruption, and other governance issues. In its 2013 Impunity Index, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the Philippines as the third most deadly for journalists in the world - after Iraq and Somalia - with 55 unsolved killings of journalists in the past decade.
As president, Aquino has promised to end impunity for extrajudicial killings. The number of killings has decreased significantly since the administration of his predecessor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, though they have not ended. The government has passed several key pieces of legislation on human rights. Yet the Aquino administration has made little progress in bringing perpetrators of serious human rights violations to justice and ending impunity.
"This first conviction was easy, as the gunman had confessed," Adams said. "Now the government has to do the more difficult work of successfully prosecuting those who ordered Ortega's murder. This would demonstrate that the government is finally getting serious about political killings."