Ecleo on ‘A-1 list’ of fugitives
They’ve been through thick and thin for the past decade—until now.
Lawyer Orlando Salatandre told the court he’s decided to part ways with his celebrity client Rep. Ruben Ecleo Jr., who is being hunted down after the court convicted him for killing his wife in Cebu City 10 years ago.
Salatandre and his co-defense lawyer Giovanni Mata yesterday informed the court about their decision to withdraw as Ecleo’s counsel.
“We have delivered our piece. I’m busy (with other cases now). I was more (focused) on the trial. Now it’s time to appeal,” Salatandre told Cebu Daily News.
He said another lawyer will take over Ecleo’s case and that his client didn’t oppose the decision.
But prosecution lawyer Kit Enriquez remained skeptical.
“That’s just a tactic of theirs,” Enriquez told Cebu Daily News.
He said the lawyers’ court pleading does not bear the signature of Ecleo.
The motion to withdraw as counsel was filed before Regional Trial Court Judge Soliver Peras of Branch 10.
Enriquez got a copy of the pleading yesterday. He said defense lawyers may have decided to withdraw as a maneuver so Ecleo would have a reason to delay seeking reconsideration of the court decision or an appeal on his conviction, and thus avoid it from becoming a final judgment.
Prosecution lawyers earlier said Ecleo loses his right to have his conviction reviewed or appealed if he fails to surrender by April 28, which is 15 days after the promulgation of the court decision.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ordered law enforcers particularly agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to find and arrest Ecleo, the incumbent congressman of the lone district of Dinagat Island in Surigao del Norte.
“He is part of the A1 list as we call it (in the Department of Justice),” De Lima told reporters in Cebu.
De Lima, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new NBI-7 building Cebu City, said Ecleo joins other four high-profile fugitives: retired army general Jovito Palparan, former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and the latter’s brother, Coron Mayor Mario Reyes.
Palparan is facing arrest in connection with the 2006 abduction and disappearance of two students of the University of the Philippines.
Former Palawan governor Reyes and his brother, Mayor Reyes, are also wanted after they were both charged with murder for the death of broadcaster-environmentalist Gerry Ortega last year.
De Lima said she also ordered the arrest of Senior Insp. Joselito Binayo for the torture of a crime suspect.
“(These are) high-profile cases. Of course, we prioritize them when it comes to hunting or implementing the warrant of arrest,” she said.
Asked about the Bacolod family’s wish that reward money be offered to flush out Ecleo, De Lima said the DOJ or the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) are mandated by law to grant reward money for the arrest of the fugitives.
But she said they will give law enforcers a few more days to arrest Ecleo.
“We can always consider putting up a reward money if Ecleo can’t be located in the next few days,” De Lima said.
She said granting of reward money is “automatic” on the part of the DOJ and the DILG.
For one, the Philippine National Police (PNP), which is under the DILG, offered P500,000 reward for anyone with information that can lead to the arrest of retired army general Palparan.
DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo announced the offer last December 2011.
“Pinagbibigyan muna namin ng konting panahon baka makita naman. If wala, then we resort to reward money. (We’ll give law enforcers more time to arrest Ecleo. If they fail, then we resort to reward money),” De Lima said.
In a phone interview, Senior Supt. Louie Oppus, deputy director for operations of the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas (PRO-7), said that no reward money has been initiated by the law enforcers yet.
“There’s no reward money. That’s the prerogative of the PNP chief (Nicanor Bartolome),” Oppus told Cebu Daily News.
Ecleo, who is the supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), a cult founded by his father in Surigao del Norte, was found guilty of parricide in the death of his wife Alona.
She was strangled in their residence in sitio Banawa, barangay Guadalupe, Cebu City, on Jan. 5, 2002, and her body was dumped in the southern Cebu town of Dalaguete.
Ecleo was sentenced to reclusion perpetua (20 to 40 years) and ordered to pay P26.3 in damages to the five remaining siblings of Alona.
Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia and Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama earlier didn’t favor spending local government funds for a reward to capture Ecleo.
Salatandre said he has no knowledge of Ecleo’s whereabouts although he stayed in touch by cell phone on the day the verdict was read, and told reporters he conveyed to his client the judge’s decision on April 13.
Salatandre said that day was his last communication with Ecleo and that he spoke with Ecleo’s family most of the time.
Prosecution lawyer Enriquez was elated with the announcement of De Lima.
“We see that it is hard to arrest Ecleo because he has the money,” Enriquez said.
He said it is now up to the national government to put up a reward that may encourage PBMA members to betray their “master.”
“We’ve been longing for the arrest of Ecleo. The national government should do their part,” he said.
Ecleo has been hiding since the Sandiganbayan issued an arrest warrant against him early last year.
The Sandiganbayan earlier found Ecleo guilty of three counts of graft for overpaying the construction of two municipal buildings and for spending public funds for a women’s center owned by the PBMA, during his stint as mayor of San Jose, Dinagat Island.
He was supposed to be jailed for 31 years on that case.
Judge Peras also ordered his arrest after he failed to attend three consecutive hearings.
Ecleo surrendered following a bloody gun battle between law enforcers and his followers in Dinagat Island, Surigao del Norte, on June 18, 2002. /Ador Vincent Mayol, Reporter and Correspondent Rhea Ruth V. Rosell