DOJ orders probe into witness death

Agence France Presse

Posted at Feb 11 2013 08:08 PM | Updated as of Feb 12 2013 05:04 AM

MANILA – Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Monday ordered government investigators to look into the mysterious prison death of a key witness in the murder of a prominent environmentalist.

She gave the order after an autopsy indicated that the witness, Dennis Aranas, did not commit suicide as jail officials had said, but may have been murdered.

"I ordered the NBI (the official National Bureau of Investigation) to probe it," she said in an SMS message to reporters, referring to a special investigating body of the justice department.

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.

Aranas, who allegedly acted as a look-out in the murder, was in jail when he died with jail officials telling his family that he had hanged himself.

However an autopsy by the Public Attorney's Office, a government agency that provides legal aid, found signs that Aranas was forcibly strangled, said Persida Acosta, head of the office.

"He was killed while horizontal or lying down. He was held down by four or five assailants," Acosta told AFP, quoting the office's forensic expert.

She said the Aranas family had asked her office for help in looking into the case and that she had sent her findings to de Lima and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas but it was up to them to look further into the alleged crime.

The government alleges Joel Reyes, former governor of the island province of Palawan, and his brother Mario had plotted the murder of Ortega, who had accused the politician of massive corruption.

The suspects are believed to have gone into hiding abroad.

The family of Ortega has expressed fears that the case against the Reyes brothers may be weakened by the death of witnesses.