PHILIPPINES: Murder of Gerry Ortega, an anti-mining activist, cannot be passed off as a robbery
Unlike most of the murders of journalists, human rights and political activists, where the perpetrators are not known, Ortega's murder is one of the few instances in which the perpetrator has been arrested, if indeed, it can be proven that the person whom the police arrested was the gunman. In most cases, even if the identity of the gunmen is known, they could not be prosecuted because of lack of witnesses. Witnesses are too frightened to testify in most investigations conducted by the authorities.
There were two versions as to the motive of Ortega's murder at the early stage of the investigation. First, the gunman had killed him as a result of robbery gone wrong. However, there was no evidence to show the use of force and resistance on Ortega's part that would have resulted in the shooting. Secondly, that the murder was a result of Ortega's advocacies for protection of the environment, particularly the impact of mining; and that the arrested gunman had been hired to silence him.
The AHRC doubted the first version. It is incomprehensible and devoid of logic to be the gunman's motive to kill Ortega. To trivialize the murders of journalists, human rights and political activists, has been a common police practice at the early stage of investigations in the Philippines. The murder of Bishop Alberto Ramento inside his convent in Tarlac City on October 3, 2006 is one of many highly politically motivated murders that investigators have also trivialized as a result of robbery, not a targeted attack on activists.
There is a political context and benefit of publicity on the part of the government as to why this type of murder would rather be reduced to plain robbery. When a murder is trivialized as purely motivated by robbery, the state responsibility and accountability is also reduced. It creates a false sense that the ongoing extrajudicial killings are not systematic, widespread and targeted, to gloss over the country's human rights record.
In Ortega's case, the Philippine National Police (PNP) already had a starting point in their investigation that they must continue with effectively and thoroughly. What is needed from them is to focus on Ortega's work as the motive and to identify the people behind his murder. The AHRC is aware of Ortega's environmental advocacy, particularly the negative implications of mining on the indigenous community in the Palawan peninsula. He spoke of this during his dialogue with AHRC staff in Hong Kong with other colleagues on November 2009.
It is reported that Ortega had informed the police about receiving death threats on his mobile phone before he was murdered. Therefore, the police station who recorded his testimony should explain what action they have taken to protect him and the result of their investigation in identifying the persons who made the threats. It needs to be ascertained as to how the policemen took action on his report. If there was neglect on the part of the police, this must be investigated and they must be held accountable.
Ortega's murder reaffirms the already known fact that the perpetrators have no qualms about murdering their targets in broad daylight, at anytime, anywhere. The presence of hundreds of potential witnesses no longer hinders them. Ortega was shot in open public view, in a crowded market place and in broad daylight. The perpetrators no longer fear being arrested and prosecuted for murder. In most cases they will get away with it.
The lack of prosecution in over a thousand extrajudicial killings of journalists, human rights and political activists, demonstrates how deeply flawed the system of investigation and prosecution is in the country. To our knowledge, only three cases involving the murder of journalists are known to have resulted in convictions; the rest of the cases did not result in prosecution.
Ortega's murder demonstrates the ugly reality of the loss of value of human lives in the Philippine society. The value of human lives has become only an idea rather than fact because the system in which lives should have been protected is either deeply flawed or non-existent in its real sense. It is the people who protect themselves in their own system; they do not rely on the government. The murder and the ongoing impunity is a byproduct of the rotten state of the investigation and protection mechanism.
For more about Gerry Ortega, please read:
Gerry Ortega: From crocodile hunter to hunted crusader
Palawan broadcaster shot dead, gunman caught
Slain Palawan journalist received death threats
Palawan Environmentalist and Broadcaster Shot Dead
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984