Senate to probe alleged COVID-19 deaths of high-profile Bilibid inmates

The Senate will open an investigation “in aid of legislation” of the reported COVID-19 deaths of several high-profile inmates at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in a resolution on Monday, July 20.

Citing “unclear, inaccurate, and unverified reports,” Sotto said the Senate will investigate “speculations as to whether…these NBP inmates actually died due to [the] COVID-19 disease,” or if the alleged deaths were a ruse to let the prisoners escape.

In Senate resolution No. 468, Sotto mentioned news reports that 9 inmates, “mostly convicted drug lords,” at the national penitentiary’s “highly secured” Building 14 inside the Maximum Security Compound have died of the coronavirus disease.

The alleged fatalities include Jaybee Sebastian, a convicted drug trafficker who testified in the illegal drug cases against Senator Leila de Lima. According to an Inquirer report, Sebastian died of COVID-19 on Saturday, July 18, and his body was supposedly cremated without an autopsy the same evening.

The log of the Panteon de Dasmariñas Public Cemetery in Dasmariñas, Cavite, states that Sebastian’s body was cremated on July 18, along with others named Marcelo, Zhang, and Hung, the resolution stated, citing media reports.

However, Cavite 4th District Representative Elpidio Barzaga Jr said no autopsies were done on the bodies cremated at the Panteon de Dasmariñas, and crematorium workers did not open body bags sent by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) if they came with death certificates and other documents.

The BuCor pays the Dasmariñas City government P15,000 for every deceased prisoner cremated.

In the resolution, Sotto cited a ranking police official as saying in the media report: “The BuCor could have just replaced the body with another inmate and declared the death of a high-profile inmate."

The Senate will resume its regular session on Monday, July 27. It is expected to set the schedule for the probe and name the committee that will be in charge of it when the senators meet in plenary.

BuCor chief Gerald Bantag earlier said a total of 21 persons deprived of liberty have died of COVID-19 at the NBP, out of 339 confirmed cases.

'No compelling reason'

Earlier on Monday, Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, said he so far does not see a “very compelling reason to suspect any foul play” in the inmates’ reported deaths.

“Personally, I'd rather focus on more pressing matters than be distracted by the deaths of drug convicts 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,” Lacson said in a statement.

The Data Privacy Act may be invoked in the case of Sebastian and other high-value inmates who allegedly died of COVID-19 because revealing their information may expose their families to discrimination, Lacson added.

Bantag earlier cited the law when he declined to confirm reports about Sebastian’s reported death. The corrections chief initially only confirmed that several NBP inmates have died of COVID-19, and did not disclose their identities.

On Monday, however, Bantag confirmed in a meeting with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that Sebastian died of COVID-19 and was "immediately cremated." (READ: Drug convict Jaybee Sebastian died of coronavirus, immediately cremated– BuCor)

Senators may ask “relevant questions” during an inquiry in aid of legislation, especially in an executive session, Lacson said.

'Victims of incompetence, indifference, impunity'

Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained on charges based on accounts from NBP drug convicts including Sebastian, said all persons who have died of COVID-19 are “victims of the incompetence, indifference, and impunity of the Duterte administration in dealing with the pandemic.”

Although her lawyers are still studying the effect Sebastian’s death would have on her case, De Lima said it would amount to “one less fabrication” against her. In a statement sent from her detention cell at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City, the senator asserted that all accusations against her are false.

“That being said, I want to raise the alarm again, as I repeatedly did in the past, on the dire conditions existing in our jails and prisons during this pandemic, and even in pre-pandemic times. COVID-19 is not a joke, as the Duterte regime has treated it, especially in our prison system that hosts the perfect conditions for the spread of the virus,” De Lima added.

As of Monday afternoon, July 20, the Philippines has recorded 68,898 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,835 deaths and 23,072 recoveries. – Rappler.com

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.

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