DOJ on aggrieved Bilibid returnees: They can sue us

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Justice has maintained that it did not commit unlawful acts when it facilitated the rearrest and detention of 2,352 previously released convicts, and dared them to sue the DOJ if they felt that they had "unnecessarily suffered" because of their return to prison.

"It's up to them if they want to sue civilly for damages, or administratively, that's the prerogative of these PDLs (Persons Deprived of Liberty) who believe they might have unnecessarily suffered," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said  at the Kapihan forum on Wednesday, January 15.

Guevarra insisted that the convicts – particularly those who turned out to be qualified for release after all – returned voluntarily, despite the accounts of returnees who said that they were either forced or threatened by BuCor personnel into returning to prison.

President Rodrigo Duterte had earlie ordered the return of heinous crime convicts released on Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA), owing to the DOJ's revision of the law's internal rules to exclude heinous crimes from the coverage of the benefits. This was sparked by the near-early release of murderer-rapist Antonio Sanchez. (TIMELINE: the GCTA law and the controversy it stirred)

"To begin with, hindi naman sila dapat nagsurrender, maliwanag naman kung sino pinapa-surrender.... By their own acts, naipit sila sa loob (To begin with, they should not have surrendered, it's very clear who were the ones asked to surrender. By their own acts, they got  stuck inside)," said Guevarra.

Returnees whom Rappler spoke to said they were hunted down by either cops or parole officers and forced to go back to Bilibid, where personnel were determined to jail them even though they had papers proving they were qualified for release.

Guevarra believed this did not constitute unlawful detention, and maintained the government narrative that the surrenders were voluntary.

No culpability?

At least 5 returnees died while awaiting their rerelease, prompting Guevarra to order a BuCor report on the deaths including "the culpability (if any) of BuCor personnel, who should be held responsible thereof, the particular actions taken to address these matters."

"Wala akong natanggap (I haven't received any report) making a conclusion as to persons liable, but we can follow that up if you're interested to pursue the matter," Guevarra said.

The justice chief said that what the BuCor had told him so far was that one of the returnees who died had a preexisting ailment.

Since their return to Bilibid, the ex-convicts had to sleep on the road for days, under pouring rain on some nights, before they were turned over to the Minimum Security Compound where they were packed in a covered court and the visiting area.

The returnees said BuCor personnel did not adequately respond to the emergencies of their fellow inmates, who later died.

In response to this, Guevarra said, "You may be correct that there are more than one who passed away, but every year naman may namamatay (someone dies) in prison because of old age and sickness, whether you're inside or outside you're going to die."

Guevarra that acknowledged medical facilities in Bilibid were "inadequate" but stopped short of admitting responsibility for the deaths. (READ: 1 prisoner dies in Bilibid every day, says new chief doctor)

"It's too bad – these conditions have been happening for many many years, may mga namamatay doon (some people die) simply because of old age or sickness and so on. It's too bad that this is happening," he said.

BuCor chief Gerald Bantag said there were 410 returnees who remained inside the Bilibid's Minimum Security Compound, where they continue to be lodged at the covered court. (READ: Taal ashfall hits Bilibid where returnees still sleep in covered court) –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.