A series of cover-ups?

The findings of Public Attorney’s Office forensics laboratory chief, Dr. Erwin Erfe, that Dennis Aranas did not commit suicide but was probably murdered shows to what lengths those who would deny justice for the murder of our colleague Gerardo Ortega will go.

Even more appalling, it shows the depths of the corruption that Doc Gerry waged a crusade against, a fight that cost him his life — that the very government agencies supposed to help ensure that those who ordered his death would not escape the reach of justice now seem to be, in the face of Dr. Erfe’s findings, engaged in a dark conspiracy to pervert the very justice they are sworn to uphold and deliver.

The only similarity Dr. Erfe’s post-mortem on Aranas, who had confessed to being the lookout of the hit team that assassinated Ortega on January 24, 2011 and then offered to testify for the prosecution, has to the original autopsy conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation is that, yes, he did die by asphyxiation. In other words, he strangled to death.

But, according to Dr. Erfe’s findings, not by his own hand inside his cell at the Quezon district jail in Lucena City but by at least four persons who beat him up, held him down and then squeezed the life out of him.

It is also very telling that Aranas’ own brother Aljon debunked the claim of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology that he had been suffering depression and had intimated to a fellow inmate his desire to take his life.

In fact, Aljon said, he was expecting a visit from his family on February 6, the day after he was found dead.

If we take Dr. Erfe’s findings and add this to the timeline of events following Doc Gerry’s death, what do we get?

A long chain of events clearly meant to cover up not only his murder but also that which caused it — yes, corruption — the plunder of Palawan’s share of the Malampaya Gas Project, his crusade against which made Doc Gerry a marked man.

Consider this:

Despite the clear chain of evidence leading from the members of the hit team to the alleged masterminds and their cohorts, the original panel of prosecutors that investigated the case cleared all the principal suspects.

The uproar by the Ortega family, the media and other groups campaigning for justice led to a reinvestigation and the reversal of the original panel’s findings.

But only days before a court issued the arrest warrant for the alleged masterminds — former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, the mayor of Coron — the brothers fled the country with the help of crooked immigration personnel (Joel held a “genuine” passport in the name of Joseph Lim Pe while his brother had no exit record) and, doubtless, forewarned by equally crooked moles within the justice system. Not to mention, given the process through which passports are now applied for and secured, crooked contacts in Foreign Affairs as well.

That it took several months before their flight became known shows how far good connections and a lot of grease will go, although in the end the truth will out.

Of course, everyone knew that the moment the members of the hit team and the man who hired them, Joel Reyes’ former bodyguard Rodolfo “Bumar” Edard Jr., snitched on their masters and offered to turn state witness, they, too, all became marked men.

Which is what the Witness Protection Program is all about, or so we thought.

And yet, in June last year, Aranas was yanked out of the program, supposedly because there was a standing warrant for his arrest on a different murder case. That, plus a DOJ panel had supposedly dismissed his testimony as “dispensable.”

If so, how come Ortega family lawyer Alex Avisado Jr. has said that, not only were they not informed about Aranas’ discharge from the WPP, as the DOJ is mandated to, the panel that supposedly considered his testimony worthless does not exist.

“To say that Aranas was dropped from the WPP upon the recommendation of the panel of prosecutors handling the case is a form of deception,” Avisado said in a news report. “There is no panel of prosecutors handling the case. There is only a trial prosecutor fiscal in Palawan and several private prosecutors.”

Surprisingly — or not — Avisado also disclosed that, like Aranas, there is also an effort to take Bumar out of witness protection on the same grounds, a murder case seemingly from out of nowhere.

Indeed, it is becoming very likely that what we have been looking at is what Avisado calls a “pattern and series” of cover-ups.

While we continue to hold high respect for Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, we feel that her order to the NBI to investigate the death of Aranas is out of kilter. After all, was it not an NBI autopsy that buttressed the BJMP’s claim of suicide, which Erfe’s post-mortem has now debunked?

The web of deception and corruption that has been cast to prevent the efforts to bring those responsible for Doc Gerry’s death to justice has made a mockery of “tuwid na daan.”

As we have said before, if President Benigno Aquino III really wishes to fulfill his vow of good governance, one of the fastest ways to do so is to solve the murders of journalists because most of these killings stemmed from the victims’ efforts to uncover the very corruption Aquino claims he wants to stamp out.

We have lost count of how many times this administration’s mouthpieces have resorted to the hackneyed excuse that, sorry, that happened in the past, before our time, we are not responsible.

Alas for them, Doc Gerry’s murder leaves them no such out.

It was under your watch, Mr. President, that he was murdered for doing what you promised to do, work to stamp out corruption.

Mr. Aquino, the ball is in your hands.

Rowena Paraan
Secretary General