MANILA, Philippines – Senator Leila De Lima raised doubts over government claims that a riot ensued in the high-security compound of the New Bilibid Prison on Wednesday, September 28, saying it appeared to be Malacañang’s way of threatening prisoners who refuse to testify against her.
According to Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, the riot occurred 7:40 am on Wednesday, killing inmate Tony Co and injuring several other high-profile inmates such as Jaybee Sebastian, who is being linked to the senator by the justice department. (READ: 'Jaybee Sebastian's law ruled Bilibid')
An ongoing House investigation has presented NBP inmates who said De Lima, as justice secretary under the Aquino administration, had favored Sebastian because he was in charge of collecting money from other inmates for the senator.
De Lima has repeatedly denied this, saying that Sebastian was not among the drug lords put in isolation at NBP under her term because he provided information as a “government asset.”
On Wednesday, citing an “A1 source,” De Lima read an alleged text message from Sebastian’s wife, which indicated that her husband was being coerced to testify against the senator.
“Text ng misis ni JB (Jaybee) Sebastian – Sir kakausapin ko si JB (Jaybee) ngayon para papayagin na magtestify na against De Lima. Siya na nadidiin ngayon. Siya susi sa lahat. Labag man sa kalooban ko pero sa tingin ng mas nakararami ito ang tamang paraan. Ipapasantabi ko na lang sa kanya galit niya saka na lang hugutin 'pag ok na lahat,” the supposed message went.
(Text of Jaybee Sebastian's wife – Sir, I will talk to Jaybee now to allow him to testify against De Lima. He's being pressed now. He's the key to everything. While it is against my will, many people think this would be for the best. I will ask him to set aside his anger for now... eventually it will turn out okay.)
“Pati po personal na buhay namin sigurado apektado, lumalalim po ang imbestigasyon. Si De Lima lang naman kailangan nila. Alam ko mapapatawad kami ng mga anak ko at ng mga naniniwala sa kanya kung sakaling magdesisyon kami ng salungat sa prinsipyo namin. Sorry po,” it added.
(Even our personal life is affected, the investigation is getting deeper. They only want De Lima. I know our children and those who believe in Jaybee would forgive us should we decide to give in and go against our principles.)
De Lima refused to identify her source of the alleged text message, saying the person only wanted to help her.
The “riot,” De Lima told a press conference, could be Malacañang’s way of threatenening inmates and pressuring them to follow the President’s wishes.
“Absent any other available reliable information, I’m not discounting the fact this is another way of government [to] persuade the Bilibid 19 to testify against me. And this incident should serve as a lesson to those who refuse to cooperate with the government and do Aguirre and Malacañang’s bidding,” De Lima said.
“One thing in common. Aside from drug convicts separated from general population, several of these prisoners refused and continue to refuse to testify against me in the House hearings as their alleged protector,” De Lima said.
“They should know. I was the one who started their misery by cutting them off their drug trade and luxurious living quarters,” De Lima said, referring to the December 2014 raid in Bilibid.
If this is indeed true, De Lima said the Duterte administration has reached a new level of “murderous policy,” which encourages killings of perceived enemies.
The senator asked the administration to stop these acts, which she described as the “height of mafia tactics.”
“To threaten them with violence and murder, simply because they don’t want to be used, is the height of mafia tactics and gangster-style operations that makes this government worse than a narco state,” she said.
“It makes this government an assassin state, a state that promotes summary executions as policy and weapon against perceived enemies,” she said.
Weeks of political drama
The Duterte administration has singled out De Lima as the alleged protector of the notorious and lucrative drug ring in the maximum security prison, with administration allies and the justice department leading the charge to pin her down with witnesses.
De Lima, on the other hand, had initiated a Senate probe into the alleged involvement of President Rodrigo Duterte in killings in Davao through a death squad that he reportedly formed when he was mayor. Her presentation of whistleblower Edgar Matobato cost her the chairmanship of the Senate committee on justice and human rights; she was ousted before Matobato could testify again. (READ: Edgar Matobato: Liar or truth-teller?)
De Lima investigated the Davao Death Squad in 2009, when she was chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.
On Wednesday, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez dropped hints De Lima and her allies were behind the riot at NBP.
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org