MANILA, Philippines—A witness in the murder of a prominent Philippine environmentalist has died in prison under mysterious circumstances, police said Wednesday, as his relatives raised fears of foul play.
Relatives alerted police Tuesday about the death of the witness, Dennis Aranas, who was detained at a jail in Lucena, capital of Quezon province, said Chief Inspector Job de Mesa.
Aranas was a key government witness to the January 2011 shooting death of journalist and environmental activist Gerry Ortega. The state alleges the murder was plotted by a politician who is believed to have fled abroad.
“They (jail officials) told us he (Aranas) had committed suicide, but when we went there to investigate, the body had been taken to the morgue,” said de Mesa, police chief of Lucena city.
The prison director and jail guards are under investigation for failing to report the death and removing the body, de Mesa added.
The prisoner who shared the jail cell with the dead man was also being questioned, he added.
Ortega’s family suggested the witness could have been silenced to weaken the murder case, and also demanded a police inquiry.
“We are just worried because as witnesses die, the case may weaken in the long run,” it said in a statement.
Aranas was the second state witness to die, the family added.
It likened the deaths to the murders of several witnesses to the 2009 massacre of 58 people in the southern province of Maguindanao.
The government alleges Joel Reyes, former governor of the island province of Palawan, and his brother Mario had plotted the murder of Ortega, a local critic.
The environmentalist’s daughter Michaella Ortega told AFP a man accused of buying the gun used in the Ortega shooting died of liver disease last year.
Aranas had been arrested as an accomplice, but later agreed to testify that he served as a lookout while a gunman shot Ortega, the Ortega family said.
Prison officials told police Aranas was found dead in his cell Tuesday with a shoulder bag strap around his neck, de Mesa said.
The dead man’s family challenged this account and demanded an autopsy, he added.