The reported deaths of several high-profile inmates at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) purportedly due to COVID-19 bears all the hallmarks of a cover-up, Senator Richard Gordon said Tuesday.
In a Zoom interview, Gordon expressed readiness to immediately conduct a Senate investigation into the highly-suspicious deaths of the drug lords. He added he would just wait for the referral to his committees--Blue Ribbon and public justice, after Congress opens on July 27.
In the meantime, he said, his office has established that there were 45 deaths in April and 29 in May in the NBP.
The senator said he was inclined to support allegations that the real drug lords were merely reported dead and that other bodies were cremated to make it appear that they died of COVID-19.
He said there is every reason to suspect for a cover up.
“They came out with the reports when they’re already dead and cremated. That’s very doubtful, that’s not right, that’s unacceptable,” said Gordon.
“If there’s death, there should be proof. If a convicted felon would be executed, there should be witnesses. But in this case, even the family failed to see the Bilibid inmates who succumbed to COVID-19,” Gordon said.
He said there are sets of people who did not report what happened- the deaths of inmates- to their superiors.
He said if an inmate dies, he should not be immediately cremated—and deaths of high-profile inmates should be reported to the Justice department. The Health department, too, must be told which hospital the inmate was taken to.
Gordon said Bureau of Corrections Director Gerald Bantag was wrong to invoke the Data Privacy Act to justify the failure to report the deaths, because in detention, rights are diminished.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the National Bureau of Investigation has already been tasked by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to investigate the Bilibid deaths.
“No matter how we strongly feel about these deaths, all our misgivings and biases for or against Bucor merely play second fiddle to the official investigation,” said Lacson.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Tuesday said the widespread anomalies at the BuCor revealed during Senate hearings triggered doubts that the deaths of inmates at the NBP could have been faked.
"Given the anomalies in the BuCor unearthed in the Senate hearings, we cannot help but suspect that faking deaths of prisoners can happen," Drilon said.
Because of this, the burden is on BuCor to present proof of regularity in the performance of its functions, he added.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto said to erase suspicions surrounding the deaths of Bilibid inmates, especially the high-profile drug lords, BuCor should show photos of the body.
"The proof of death is a photo of the body. If there is [such a photo], then doubts will be laid to rest," Recto said.
Just as prisoners, as a rule, have their photos taken upon entering the national penitentiary, then surely a visual record is taken upon their exit, too, whether they are alive or dead, the senator said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday called for an investigation of the Bilibid inmates’ alleged deaths. Citing “unclear, inaccurate, and unverified reports,” Sotto urged the Senate to uncover if the high-profile inmates had “actually died.”
In the House, Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate slso called for a thorough investigation on the reported deaths of high \-profile drug lords in the NBP.
"There seems to be something off with the supposed deatInhs of nine drug lords, among them Jaybee Sebastian, who was convicted of kidnapping-for-ransom and carjacking in 2009. Is it mere coincidence that major drug lords just supposedly died at around the same time of COVID-19 with no autopsy nor witnesses to prove that they really died because their bodies were supposedly cremated immediately?" Zarate said in a statement.
At the same time, administration all, Rep. Ruffy Biazo of Muntinlupa said the death of inmates under the custody of government, regardless if they are convicted of a crime, should not be hidden behind the Data Privacy Act.
"The family of the person, and even the public, has a right to know if the deaths that occurred in a government facility was of natural causes or wrongdoing," Biazon said
"Most of all, circumstances of the death of any person deprived of liberty under the custody of government should never be hidden, and no excuse to conceal it should ever be accepted," he added.
Zarate also called for a full-blown investigation into the murder of a 29-year-old officer of BuCor, Corrections Officer 1 (CO1) Edmund Molina, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head inside the NBP Wednesday evening.
Zarate recalled last year’s scandal at the BuCor in which inmates convicted of heinous crimes became eligible for early release.
Rep. Niña Taduran of ACT-CIS party-list group called for a postmortem testing of the deceased inmates, including those who allegedly died of Covid-19.
Tanduran also asked the Department of Health to issue guidelines on such postmortem testing, especially for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 deaths.
Also on Tuesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the death of Sebastian would not weaken the case against detained opposition Senator Leila de Lima.
Guevarra said that the Department of Justice has other witnesses who could testify against De Lima, who is being tried before the Muntinlupa City court for the illegal drug trade inside the NBP.
“Jaybee Sebastian is only one in an array of witnesses against Senator De Lima. His loss does not affect in any significant manner the overall strategy of the prosecution in the pending criminal cases,” Guevarra said, in a text message.
Sebastian is one of the nine high-profile inmates in the NBP who died due to coronavirus infection. He died July 18 and his remains have been cremated.
Sebastian is one of De Lima’s co-accused in one of the three drug cases filed against the senator pending before a Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 206.
De Lima has been accused of conspiring with Sebastian, former Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Jesus Bucayu, Bucayu’s former staff Wilfredo Elli, her former driver and lover Ronnie Dayan, De Lima’s former security aide Joenel Sanchez, and Jad de Vera in the trading of illegal drugs inside the NBP that would allegedly be used to fund her 2016 senatorial bid.
During the congressional probe, Sebastian testified that he gave De Lima about P14 million from earnings in the narcotics trade.
Sebastian pleaded guilty to committing the crime.
In a related development, Guevarra said he had directed BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag to make sure that a representative from the Department of Health is present when they have scheduled PCR swab tests in their penal facilities.
The BuCor should also exert effort to locate and inform the relatives of the deceased inmates about their death before their bodies are cremated.
Meanwhile, Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Domingo Egon Cayosa expressed his support for a thorough investigation to determine if the nine high-profile inmates really died due to COVID-19.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cayosa said there had been rumors of inmates receiving unwarranted privileges and that they were able to continue with their illicit business transactions from inside prison. There were also allegations that there are inmates who have secretly been illegally freed.
“The Data Privacy Law should not be misused to blur the accountability of public officers, thwart the constitutional right to information on matters of public concern, or disregard the personal interest of the victims and all those who labored to hold the guilty liable. Transparency should instead be promoted to help heal and disinfec
The Department of Health on Tuesday has asked the BuCor o submit a complete report on COVID-19 cases following the deaths of some high profile inmates in the NBP.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, interviewed on GMA Network’s Unang Hirit, said the DOH only receives initial reports from BuCor about COVID-19 cases and fatalities.