Senate President Vicente Sotto III called for an investigation Monday into the death of high-profile inmates and their immediate cremation at the New Bilibid Prison, saying officials there could have replaced their bodies and declared them dead from COVID-19.
READ: Police probe death of BuCor official
“How would we know? There were no more fingerprints,” Sotto said.
Sotto's call for a Senate investigation came as the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) said 19 inmates at the NBP have died from COVID-19.
In his resolution, Sotto noted that a ranking police official, who was aware of the supposed COVID-19 deaths, said prison officials “could have just replaced the body with another inmate and declared the death of a high-profile inmate.”
Due to unclear, inaccurate and unverified reports, he said speculation is rife over whether or not the Bilibid inmates actually died from COVID-19.
Sotto also cited the alarming news that at least nine high-profile inmates of the NBP, mostly convicted drug lords detained in Building 14, a highly secure facility inside the maximum security compound, died of COVID-19.
While BuCor Chief Gerald Bantag said there were inmates who died due to COVID-19, he did not disclose their identities, invoking the Data Privacy Act.
However, he confirmed there were Filipino and Chinese drug lords who died due to the disease.
Also based on the log of the Panteon de Dasmarinas Public Cemetery in Dasmarinas, Cavite, and according to its OIC Liezl Camaganacan, Sotto said Jaybee Sebastian’s body was cremated by them on July 18.
READ: DOJ probes Bilibid deaths
Sebastian was among the convicted drug lords who testified that former Justice secretary Leila De Lima received bribes from convicted drug lords in Bilibid to bank her senatorial campaign in the 2016 elections.
READ: Sebastian: I gave drug money to De Lima
Sotto said some names including Marcelo, Zhang and Hung were also among the 28 bodies that the crematorium had processed since May 31.
Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga said no autopsies were conducted on the bodies cremated at the Panteon de Dasmarinas. He said BuCor paid Dasmarinas City P15,000 for each deceased prisoner “but our people at the crematorium were not to open the body bags anymore.” So long as there were death certificates with the proper papers, the bodies were cremated.
Based on published reports, Sotto said, BuCor on June 4 reported 222 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths among its inmates due to the virus. In just more than 10 days, the BuCor reported 301 confirmed cases and 16 deaths.
Meanwhile, De Lima said her lawyers are still assessing the effect of Sebastian’s death on the drug cases against her, considering that he was the government’s supposed star witness.
READ: De Lima belies Jaybee testimony
“However, all testimonies coming from the inmates and some other so-called witnesses are all fabrications anyway. One less fabrication might be good in my case, but let us not forget all the other testimony fabrications. Whether the fabricator is dead or alive does not change the fact that their stories are all lies, and that the cases against me are all fake,” De Lima said.
De Lima said a judge worth his or her salt and who is still independent of Malacañang would readily see through all “this machinated persecution of an opposition figure.”
“He or she will not see the cases on the basis of mere technicality like the number of witnesses, and be extra perceptive on the issue of the credibility of convicted prisoners whose very lives and freedom depend on [President] Duterte. He or she should verily know that of course they are not credible. Duterte holds them all by their throats.”
“The Duterte regime can have 100 live witnesses for all I care,” she said. “But this still does not change the fact that the charges against me are absolutely false and fictitious. Conversely, the regime’s witnesses can all be dead, but this will not prevent Duterte and his operators from inventing other evidence to keep me in jail.”
Despite Sotto's resolution, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, former director of BuCor, said he had misgivings about an inquiry into the inmate deaths.
Dela Rosa is the chairman of the Senate committee on public order, which is supposed to lead the Senate investigation.
Sought for his comment, Dela Rosa said he saw no basis for an investigation. He said COVID-19 spares no one.
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said he would try to convince Dela Rosa to conduct an investigation.
He said the inquiry will look into reports that inmates succumbed to COVID-19 at the NBP and other detention facilities in the country.
All inmates have the right to safe detention, Zubiri said.
Sotto, on the other hand, said there were too many unanswered questions, including the absence of an autopsy and the failure to inform the relatives and the Justice department of the deaths.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, too, seemed reluctant to pursue an investigation into the Bilibid deaths.
“Unless there is very compelling reason to suspect any foul play–and as of now, there is none–personally, I'd rather focus on more pressing matters than be distracted by the death s of drug convict s who had shown no remorse at all by continuing their drug operations even in the confines of the high-security facility of the New Bilibid Prison, right under the noses of prison officials, corrupting those who have no moral fortitude to resist even drug money.”
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon rebuked BuCor Director Gerald Bantag for refusing to reveal the real conditions and reported deaths of inmates by invoking the Data Privacy Act.
“What’s BuCor hiding? Moreover, transparency is an effective mechanism to guard against abuses such as fake or simulated deaths,” he said.
Drilon said BuCor is wrong to invoke the Data Privacy Act.
He said the fact of death is not sensitive personal information protected by the Data Privacy Act and that a death certificate is in fact a public document required to be filed upon any person’s death.
Bantag said they are prohibited by the Data Privacy Act to reveal the names of persons deprived of liberty who allegedly died of COVID-19 disease.
But Drilon said disclosing information about a prisoner’s death is not protected information under the Data Privacy Law. “The fact that a person is dead is not contemplated by the law.”
“What we are asking is information on those who died. That is factual,” he added.
“Disclosing information about prison deaths will not do any harm,” Drilon said, adding: “Transparency is an effective mechanism to guard against abuses such as fake or simulated deaths.”
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of nine high-profile inmates, including Sebastian, to verify the claim of Bantag that they had died of COVID-19.
The directive came after Guevarra met with Bantag at his office to shed light on reports about the death of several high profile inmates and the cremation of Sebastian, a co-accused in one of the illegal drug trade cases filed against De Lima before the regional trial court of Muntinlupa City.
Guevarra and Bantag met Monday afternoon on the COVID-19 situation at the BuCor as well as the reported deaths of nine prisoners who were convicted of offenses involving illegal drugs, including Sebastian.
In an interview over Dobol B sa News TV, BuCor spokesman Col. Gabriel Chaclag said 19 inmates in the NBP who tested positive for COVID-19 have already died.
Chaclag said the national penitentiary has recorded 343 COVID-19 cases, as of Monday.
Of the 343, 311 have recovered and 19 had died, he said.
Some of the cases came from Building 14, he added.
The Department of Health (DOH) on Monday reminded jail authorities that health protocols should be strictly observed in jails.
DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in a virtual press briefing, said health screening and contact tracing should be conducted in prison.
Vergeire said an inmate in critical condition should be removed from the facility and brought to a hospital.