New Bilibid Prison

De Lima seeks probe into jail inmate deaths during COVID-19 pandemic

JC Gotinga
Are health protocols followed in the country’s jails? And could the reported COVID-19 deaths of 9 drug convicts in maximum security be a hoax? Senator Leila de Lima wants to find out.

Senator Leila de Lima called for a legislative investigation of reported deaths of jail inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic, as questions surround the deaths of 9 maximum security convicts, and the status of the pandemic in penal facilities.

In a statement on Monday, August 10, De Lima criticized the Bureau of Corrections’ (BuCor) “utter lack of transparency” on the deaths of 9 illegal drug convicts at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), allegedly from COVID-19.

Among the Bilibid convicts who died was Jaybee Sebastian, the main witness in illegal drug cases for which De Lima has been in detention at Camp Crame in Quezon City since February 2017.

“These deaths of high-profile NBP PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) not only raise numerous doubts on how health protocols and procedures are being outrightly neglected by BuCor, but also how this pandemic can be a convenient excuse to cover up torture and killings of PDLs or worse, to even simulate deaths of PDLs,” De Lima said.

The deaths of high-profile convicts at the national penitentiary sparked controversy in mid-July, when news of Sebastian’s death and cremation without an autopsy caught even the Department of Justice (DOJ) by surprise.

BuCor chief Gerald Bantag said on July 19 that Sebastian died of COVID-19 on the morning of July 18, and had to be cremated the same day to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. None of the jailers and crematorium workers verified the body’s identity – whether it was indeed Sebastian – and it was not shown to his family before it was cremated.

Based on a BuCor document obtained by Rappler, the other maximum security inmates who allegedly died of COVID-19 were Amin Imam Boratong, Benjamin Marcelo, Zhang Zhu Li, Jimmy Kinsing Hung, Willy Yang, Eugene Ho Chua, and Sherwin Sanchez. The 9th inmate supposed to also have died of COVID-19 was Francis Go, although he was not on the list Rappler obtained.

Senators Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Ralph Recto, and Vicente Sotto III earlier called for a probe into the Bilibid deaths.

Gordon noted that the sketchy circumstances of the 9 convicts’ deaths and cremations were reason enough to suspect whether they were a ruse for the convicts’ escape. He and Recto urged the BuCor to produce photos or any other document to prove the reported deaths.

At the time, De Lima said she was alarmed at the dire conditions in the country’s jails even before the pandemic, and how they create the “perfect conditions for the spread of the virus.” That, even if she thought Sebastian’s demise meant “one less fabrication” against her.

De Lima has repeatedly denied accusations of drug trafficking. The opposition senator is a fierce critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, and she was running a legislative probe into killings in his drug war when Sebastian and other drug convicts surfaced with allegations against her.

Some 476 jail inmates nationwide died from January to July 2020, of whom 21 were confirmed COVID-19 cases, the BuCor said.

With jails extremely congested, every inmate occupies an average of less than a square meter of cell space, Recto earlier said.

“The lack of transparency of BuCor with regard to deaths and of the true extent of contagion in jails and prison facilities, together with overcrowding, absence of reliable testing, inadequate health facilities, lack of protective medical equipment, non-implementation of physical distancing and health protocols inside jails and prisons, all show that the government failed in its duty to protect basic human rights and to value the dignity of PDLs,” De Lima said on Monday.

De Lima continues to work as a senator from her detention cell. She is the chairperson of the Senate social justice, welfare, and rural development committee.

The Senate was poised to begin its probe into the Bilibid controversy, but Gordon deferred it until the DOJ finishes its own investigation. – 

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.