In Philippines, questions on witness death in Ortega case

Questions surrounding the death of Dennis Aranas, accomplice-turned-witness to the murder of Filipino journalist Gerardo Ortega, have increased over the past week. Their answers beg yet another question: will the masterminds behind Ortega’s murder succeed in eluding justice?  

Ortega was a prominent radio host known for investigations into corruption among high-level officials in Palawan Province. He was shot in the back of the head as he shopped at a Puerto Princesa City clothing store shortly after his morning broadcast on January 24, 2011.

On February 5, Aranas was found dead in his cell in Lucena City, Quezon. Prison authorities said Aranas, a state witness who confessed to being the lookout in the murder of Ortega, had hung himself.

Several questions surfaced immediately, leading both Ortega and Aranas family members to call for a deeper investigation, according to news reports. Seven hours elapsed between the time Aranas’ body was found and the police being notified, with no explanation. When police did arrive, the body was no longer in the cell and the cell seemed to have been scrubbed clean, Michaella Ortega, the journalist’s daughter, told CPJ.

An initial autopsy conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation said Aranas died of asphyxia by hanging, but a subsequent post-mortem by the Public Attorney’s Office ruled this out. According to the public attorney’s findings, which were circulated by the Ortega family and reported in local media, Aranas died lying down and his death was caused by “manual and ligature strangulation.” Fingernail marks and other injuries indicated he was attacked.

“Was there a cover-up done over the death and now apparent murder of Dennis Aranas?” the Ortega family asked  in a statement following the public attorney’s autopsy, “Our family demands a full-blown investigation.” In an interview with CPJ, Michaella Ortega said, “Generally, the circumstances surrounding the supposed ‘suicide’ are far too suspicious to ignore.”  

Among those circumstances: Aranas had been removed from the government’s witness protection program based on evaluation by the department of justice that his testimony was not material to the Ortega case– and because he was wanted for a separate crime, a fact that can disqualify a witness from the protection program.  

“At the moment, what we know is that our case is still strong without his testimony. But his testimony does strengthen the testimonies of other witnesses by corroborating them. This is why he qualified in the WPP [witness protection program] in the first place. This is why he was state witness,” Michaella Ortega wrote to CPJ.

Philippines has one of the highest rates of impunity in murders of journalists, according to CPJ research.  Securing witnesses, who are often subject to threats, attacks, or bribe attempts, has been key to the few successful convictions. Aranas is not the first witness to a journalist’s murder to die under questionable circumstances. Three witnesses to the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, which included 30 journalists and two media workers among its victims, have been killed since 2010, when the trial began.  The most recent of these was found brutalized and dismembered.

“Aranas had been discharged from the witness protection program and locked up at the provincial jail, here he was vulnerable to any attempt to silence him from testifying in the trial of those who ordered the Ortega murder,” charged the National Union of Philippine Journalists in a statement this week.

Aranas may not have been pivotal to the Ortega prosecution, but his death is not the trial’s first impediment. In a promising start, one key suspect confessed to organizing Ortega’s and named former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes, who was implicated in Ortega’s reporting on corruption, as a mastermind. Initially no charges were filed; later the DOJ reviewed new evidence and issued a warrant. By then, Reyes had fled the country. He remains at large.

To the Ortega family, the events of the last week confirm one thing, according to their post-post-mortem statement:  “It appears that those involved are hell-bent on eliminating any and all obstacles keeping them from walking scot-free.”