Joel Reyes: We were not arrested, we surrendered
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines—Former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes on Friday insisted he and his brother Mario voluntarily surrendered to authorities in Thailand, after they were flown to the Philippines to face charges of masterminding the murder of a Palawan journalist and environmentalist.
Reyes made the claim in an interview with local reporters after the Palawan Regional Trial Court ordered the brothers’ detention at the Puerto Princesa City jail to await trial for the 2011 murder of Gerry Ortega.
The brothers were flown to the Palawan capital via a commercial flight and whisked away by their police escorts to the sala of presiding Judge Bayani Usman, who issued the commitment order.
Under tight security and barred by their escorts from speaking with media, the brothers were eventually allowed by City Jail Warden Supt. Don Paredes to speak to reporters, who had dogged the convoy from the Puerto Princesa airport to the jail facility.
The Reyeses were detained in a newly painted jail cell measuring 5 x 3 x 8 meters with a double deck wooden bed, a toilet and two windows.
Jail authorities said the detainees would be separated from other detainees “because of their classification as high risk” detainees.
“We are not giving them any special treatment,” Paredes said.
‘Fleeing from injustice’
Speaking to the media members after going through the booking procedure at the city jail, Joel Reyes insisted that they voluntarily surrendered to Thai authorities.
He vowed to actively cooperate with the regional trial court in order to speed up the murder trial, insisting on his innocence, but declining to comment on how he intended to pursue his defense.
“I want a speedy trial. I’m also searching for justice like the Ortega family,” he said, claiming innocence from the charge that he masterminded the Ortega murder.
Reyes justified his hiding from authorities, citing threats to his life. He denied an earlier statement issued by the Bureau of Immigration that he left the country on a fake passport.
“You can see both our original passports, they had been stamped,” he said.
“I was gone for over three years. I was temporarily fleeing from injustice because the accusations against me are not true,” he said.
No political plans
Reyes became emotional when he narrated how he was met by his family upon their arrival in Manila.
Reyes denied reports that he planned to run anew for governor of Palawan against incumbent Gov. Jose Chaves Alvarez.
“I don’t want to connect our surrender to Palawan politics. That is very divisive and all I want to do is to be an instrument for unity in the province,” Reyes said.
The Reyeses are charged with masterminding the Ortega killing after the alleged gunman named them as the persons who paid him for the hit.
In Manila, as soon as the brothers were escorted out of the Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight PR733 from Bangkok, the ex-governor smiled at everyone—be they policemen or airport workers—and wished them a pleasant morning.
Mario, the former mayor of Coron town, said he was not feeling well, the reason why he had a face mask and a light blue towel wrapped around his neck.
They looked like ordinary plane passengers—if not for their handcuffs.
The flight from Bangkok arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) at 3:08 a.m.
Fitness center business
Cameramen jostled with policemen to take photos of the brothers and shouted their questions.
“We are well. We are back in the Philippines. Long live the Philippines,” the former governor said.
The brothers fled the country in March 2012 and hid in Thailand before the court in Palawan ordered their arrest.
Joel, 63, and Mario, 54, lived hardly like fugitives in Thailand.
The brothers reportedly stayed in a villa, had a sports utility vehicle, and planned to put up a fitness center in Thailand.
The brothers were arrested in Thailand on Sunday and deported to Manila for violation of Thai immigration laws. They were accompanied by their lawyer Rod Valmoria, Philippine Embassy officials and Thai immigration officials.
On arrival in Manila, the brothers were brought to Camp Crame for booking, which included a medical checkup and the taking of their fingerprints and mug shots.
At a press conference in Camp Crame, the PNP detailed the three-year manhunt for the brothers.
PNP Director General Ricardo Marquez confirmed the PNP’s Task Force Tugis received information as early as 2014 that the Reyeses were in Thailand.
The task force coordinated with the Interpol, which posted an alert for the brothers.
According to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) director, Chief Supt. Victor Deona, it was only in February this year when the Thai Embassy confirmed that the Reyes brothers were in Thailand.
Police officials said the brothers used passports with fake names to get out of the Philippines.
The “breakthrough” in the manhunt happened on Sept. 8 when an unidentified informant contacted the CIDG about the brothers through e-mail and then by phone, Deona said.
The informant, who will receive P2-million reward for each of the Reyes brothers, pinpointed the location of the Reyeses at a villa in Rawai, south of Phuket, Thailand. The informant furnished the CIDG with a map, photos of the villa, photos of the Reyeses at the villa, and the white Ford Eco Sport vehicle they supposedly owned.
The informant said Joel had assumed the name “Johnny Leong” and Mario had taken on the alias “Nicky” while in Thailand.
The CIDG forwarded the information to the Interpol and Thai police, leading to the brothers’ arrest on Sept. 20. “At 2 p.m., they (Thai police) sent an e-mail to us: ‘We got them,’” Deona narrated.
The e-mail came with attached photos of the Reyes brothers during the arrest and their old Philippine passports, which had been canceled by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Marquez said that part of the investigation would be to see how the Reyeses managed to fund their lifestyle as shown in the photos.
“We have no information yet if they had coddlers in Thailand. We have not checked if they actually owned the villa,” Deona said. “But because of technology, money circulates easier now. You can pay through the Internet, some accounts are untraceable. We don’t know if they had foreign accounts.”
Asked how the brothers were able to leave the Philippines, Deona said: “They used Philippine passports using different names.”
Hiding because of politics
The Reyeses’ lawyer Valmoria said: “You may believe it or not, but there was already an intention (for them) to go back to the Philippines. But as I understand from Governor Reyes, he didn’t want to surrender in the Philippines because he didn’t know whom to trust.”
Valmoria said the brothers “had to hide because of politics.” He declined to elaborate but added that the elder Reyes had been receiving death threats.
Valmoria tried to secure an “executive medical checkup” in a hospital in Metro Manila for his clients, citing Mario’s “high fever” and Joel’s hypertension.
But the doctors who conducted the checkup had issued certificates that the brothers were fit to travel, said CIDG National Capital Region Chief Supt. Danilo Macerin.
One of Ortega’s daughters, Erika, 25, accompanied by activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes, arrived in Camp Crame to thank the PNP for their efforts.
“We know they don’t have that much funds but their heart to serve is there,” Erika said. “We thank everyone who helped, the volunteers, those who never asked for anything back,” she added.
Erika also said: “This is just the beginning. There will finally be clarity on what happened.”
Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento said there would be no special treatment for the brothers.
“Under the Constitution, there is an equal protection clause. It doesn’t distinguish the rich from the poor,” Sarmiento said.
Sarmiento extended to the police the “commendations” of President Aquino for another “landmark accomplishment.”
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