New Bilibid Prison

Gordon to include death fraud trade in Senate Bilibid probe

JC Gotinga
Along with the alleged deaths of high-value prisoners, the Senate will probe reports of a thriving death fraud trade in the Philippines

The Senate will look into reports of a thriving death fraud trade in the Philippines when it investigates the “suspicious” deaths of several high-profile inmates of the New Bilibid Prison, Senator Richard Gordon said on Wednesday, July 22.

Gordon heads the Senate’s blue ribbon, and justice and human rights committees, either one likely to be designated by the Senate plenary to carry out the probe.

A July 20 report by the UK news outlet The Telegraph said a “booming trade” in faking people’s deaths has existed in the Philippines as far back as the 1980s, and with a global clientele.

A black market for unclaimed corpses and moles in government offices cater to clients fleeing financial troubles, evading prison sentences, or involved in illicit romances. The report cited Elizabeth Greenwood, who experimented faking her own death in the Philippines in 2013 and included it in her book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud.

Quoting her sources, Greenwood said the Philippines is a “hotbed” for death fraud involving false corpses.

“Do we deserve that reputation? This case of the Bilibid will reinforce that,” Gordon said in a virtual media briefing.

Nakakalungkot (It’s saddening),” he added.

The recently reported deaths of 9 high-value prisoners at the Bilibid, supposedly caused due to COVID-19, sparked controversy because it was the media, not the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), that made the news public. BuCor chief Gerald Bantag only “confirmed” the matter when it made the headlines. He only identified drug convict Jaybee Sebastian as one of the fatalities during a meeting with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday, July 20 – two days after Sebastian was supposed to have died.

Further complicating the issue, the 9 prisoners’ bodies were “immediately cremated,” and the BuCor has yet to present records such as photos or CCTV footage to prove their deaths.

This has fueled suspicions that it was all a ruse for the prisoners’ escape.

“Fake death ang lumalabas dito (This appears to be fake deaths),” Gordon said. He earlier slammed the BuCor for failing to report to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health (DOH) that the convicts were sick with COVID-19, and that they had died.

What becomes of “dangerous criminals” like the 9 alleged dead prisoners is a sensitive matter, and should have been watched closely not just by the BuCor but by the DOJ and DOH, too.

Sebastian was the main witness in the illegal drug cases against detained Senator Leila de Lima. Gordon noted several of the other 8 convicts were Chinese “drug lords” who could afford to pay huge sums to buy their way out of prison.

Gordon said the incident bore “the hallmarks of a cover-up,” and should be reason enough for President Rodrigo Duterte to sack Bantag.

Hontiveros, Recto on dire jail conditions

The Senate will resume its regular session on Monday, July 27, the day of Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address. Senators will then meet in plenary and plan committee hearing schedules. Gordon said the Bilibid probe will likely be opened within that week.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III earlier ordered an investigation “in aid of legislation” following sketchy reports of the Bilibid deaths.

Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday echoed the call for an inquiry. Besides reasons already stated by Gordon and Sotto, Hontiveros found the fatality rate – 9 inmates from maximum security – improbable, creating “enough doubt…on the veracity of these deaths.”

Should the probe find no corruption in the matter, it would still be important to review the health and sanitary conditions in penal institutions to address the “abnormally high number” of COVID-19 deaths among inmates.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto drew attention to the dire conditions in the country’s jails and prisons, calling it a “pandemic time bomb.”

The average cell space for each detainee is a mere 0.87 square meters, or less than half of a folding bed, Recto said in a statement on Wednesday. He called for the temporary release of inmates whose cases are stalled in courts.

“The aim of restorative justice is to change them, and not to cause their cremation,” Recto said. –

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.