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Bilibid returnees die in Duterte administration blunders

Lian Buan, Rambo Talabong, Jodesz Gavilan

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Bilibid returnees die in Duterte administration blunders
Part 1: Massive errors in record-keeping and ill-prepared facilities keep thousands in jail for months, and kill at least 4 convict returnees. They regret heeding the President's call.

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  • The 1,914-list is wrong. Three months later, the DOJ is still in the process of reviewing and cleaning records.
  • Former convicts return, but not voluntarily. They were forced or threatened.
  • Thousands of returnees suffer harrowing conditions because the government was not prepared for them.
  • At least 4 returnees have died in the Bilibid Minimum Security Compound.
  • The DOJ denies it committed arbitrary detention.

MANILA, Philippines – In Malacañang on September 4, President Rodrigo Duterte issued a live television warning to heinous crime convicts who were previously released on good conduct time allowance (GCTA): surrender or be hunted.

“If you do not, then beginning at this hour, you are a fugitive from justice,” Duterte said, without citing a law, without a court order, and without so much a written memorandum, even though GCTA, once granted, can never be revoked.

The President offered a P1-million bounty for each of them. Dead or alive.

His justice secretary, Menardo Guevarra, watched him from the front row wearing a drab face. Later that night, Guevarra provided Supreme Court decisions to justify Duterte’s orders, even though jurisprudence does not have the force of a court order.

The President’s order and the crisis that came after was spurred by the aborted release of the rapist and murderer Antonio Sanchez, one of the beneficiaries of a Supreme Court ruling that made the GCTA law retroactive. The retroactive application of the law meant as many as 11,000 convicts jailed since the 1990s could be freed.

Crafting knee-jerk policies to appease public outrage, the Department of Justice (DOJ) toed the Duterte line and revised the law’s internal rules so those convicted of heinous crimes like Sanchez are not able to avail of the new GCTA law. This boosted Duterte’s order to rearrest thousands of heinous crime convicts already released the years before.

The original number on the return list was 1,914. As of December 13, there were 2,352 who returned to prison. Of them, 827 were set free – some just a week ago – because they turned out to be qualified for freedom after all.

Hindi ba phenomenal ‘yun? Hindi ka naman pinapasuko, sumuko ka?” Guevarra said on September 26. (Isn’t that phenomenal? You’re not being asked to surrender, yet you did?) How phenomenal was it?

Rappler spoke with returnees, their families who waited for them, the law enforcers who were supposed to guard them, and officials supposed to enforce the President’s order. The accounts paint an unprecedented breakdown of due process leading to the demise of freedom for many men and women who had hoped they would never be deprived of liberty again.

The lapses also led to fatal consequences: the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) confirmed to Rappler that at least 4 returnees died under their custody, all of them staying at the Minimum Security Compound of Bilibid.

In a memorandum sent to BuCor obtained by Rappler, Guevarra asked for a report that should contain “the culpability (if any) of BuCor personnel, who should be held responsible thereof, the particular actions taken to address these matters.”

Breakdown of the law

The implementation of Duterte’s arrest order was doomed from the beginning. At the BuCor offices in Bilibid, documentation chief Ramoncito Roque and his staff scrambled to prepare a list of prisoners who should be returned to prison. They had to comb through over 22,000 names who were granted GCTA. Duterte gave them 15 days.

Meanwhile, cops who had watched the broadcast waited. The President was unequivocal in saying that they could only make arrests 15 days later. But when the deadline came and cops began their hunt at midnight, the list they had been given led them mostly nowhere.

PAST DEADLINE. Operatives of the MPD-Moriones police in Tondo arrest an individual after failing to surrender to authorities before the deadline set by President Duterte for freed prisoners. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

In the poverty-stricken district of Moriones, Tondo, the police station’s chief intelligence officer, Captain John Tio, said they were only following the President’s orders. They needed no official paper for the order, he said. The President’s word was enough.

“If the President says it, it’s official. The President said it would be a warrantless arrest, and that they have been declared as fugitives of the law,” Tio reasoned.

The darkness was dampened by rain when Tio and his men began their search two hours past midnight on September 20. The mission targeted 4 names on their list.

Tagged by a squad of reporters, the cops dove into a maze of shanties, knocking and pleading for information. By sunrise, they found only one. Another’s home had already been torn down years before. One was already living in Bulacan, according to residents who knew him. Another one was dead.

A day before, Roque, already suspended, testified before the Senate, saying that the list was “rushed” and “unchecked.”

Belatedly acting on the information that the government’s list was defective, the DOJ stopped the arrest early morning of September 20.  The department failed to transmit a “sanitized” list to the police.

Major Ronie Fabia, chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of Albay, was at a loss. For him, he had no legal basis – at least immediately – to detain former prisoners.

“We cannot detain you here because you did not commit a crime against us. Our view is that you cannot be detained,” Fabia recalled saying in a phone interview with Rappler.

Fabia said he saw about a “dozen” of frightened former prisoners accompanied by their families flocking to his station even before Duterte’s deadline had lapsed. Orders from the national police headquarters did not come yet when the former prisoners arrived. He did not know what to do with them.

He and his men were clueless about how to rearrest released prisoners. There was no order or law for them to enforce. In the end, he sent them home.

Fabia said the prisoners wanted to turn themselves in out of fear of being killed by cops. They had become all too familiar with what had happened to thousands in the President’s unrelenting anti-illegal drugs campaign. But Fabia did not want to second-guess, so he sent them away.

When the 15 days lapsed, they all returned. By then, Fabia said he already knew what to do.

“I was told by the higher-ups to bring them to the NBP…They (BuCor) were the ones who released them. That shouldn’t be the problem of police. We were only used,” Fabia said.

The CIDG chartered cars to drop the surrenderers off all the way from Albay to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa.

“It’s their problem, not ours,” Fabia said.

Fabia trumpeted an explanation which flowed from top of the PNP’s command chain as the Duterte government slowly stepped back from his “arrest all” order. Nonetheless, the police still took in prisoners, ferrying them in droves to the New Bilibid Prison – and they did it despite knowing that their list could deprive innocent men and women of freedom.

HORROR. Returnees talk about their experience inside the Minimum Security Compound. Photos by Lian Buan/Rappler

Horror stories from prisoners

As men and women turned up at police stations and penal colonies, the government was quick to define the manner of their surrender: voluntary.

They called themselves returnees, rather than surrenderers. To surrender is voluntary, to return is – as their stories reveal – the result of circumstances. It’s the human response to fear.

Pinipilit ako, ma’am. Hindi pupuwede raw, magreport ako talaga sa Muntinlupa. Kailangan talaga ngayon na (I was being forced, I should report to Muntinlupa immediately),” said Rico Bodino, 46 years old of Tanay, Rizal, recounting the phone call he got from his parole officer on September 14. Bodino was released on conditional pardon in 2016 and had been free 3 years, meaning he was not a GCTA grantee.

Generoso Roleda, 40 years old, and freed on conditional pardon in 2017, found himself in the same dilemma. He was working as a mason in Quezon Province when he received a threatening call from a policeman. The cop offered to shoulder his fare to the station.

Bodino and Roleda were instructed to travel to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa where they were promised liberty as soon as someone verified their papers. It was also the promise parroted by Malacañang and the DOJ.

Inside, they were threatened.

Sabi sa akin, once na lumabas ka sa gate na iyan, puwede ka na namin barilin dahil ikaw ay pugante na. Wanted ka na,” said Roleda. (I was told that once I step out of the gate, they can shoot me because I’ll then be a fugitive. I’m already part of the “wanted” list.)

Martin Villanueva, 62 years old, was freed on conditional pardon in 2016. He has since then begun a new life working for a drilling company. He remembered his parole officer calling him and telling him she was looking for a cop.

“Ang sabi ko, ano’ng kaso, bakit ako ipapapulis niyo na naman? Sabi niya, may dumating na sulat mula sa BuCor na kailangan ka,” said Villanueva. (What did I do wrong, why are you rearresting me? She told me a letter from BuCor indicated I was needed.)

The BuCor guards at the gates seemed to be overzealous, he said, whispering to each other “premature, premature” to say he had been released too early. His papers show he was not a GCTA grantee, so he explained that the President’s words did not apply to him.

He recalled a BuCor guard’s retort: “Sige subukan ‘nyo lumabas at kapag lumabas kayo, paglabas ninyo d’yan sa Bilibid, wanted na kayo. Babarilin na kayo. Payag ba kayo? Isang milyon.” (Try to go out and if you do, once you’re out of Bilibid, you’ll be fugitives. You will be shot. Do you want that? One million?)

Villanueva said they were even made to sign a waiver.

Pagkatapos maibigay yung banig, pinapirma kami sa waiver na kami ay…hindi pinilit na pumarito kung hindi ay kusang loob na naglapit para sumurrender. Hindi report ha. Para sumurender. Eh di ang sama pakinggan ng sumurender. Parang may ginawa kang kaso,” said Villanueva.

(After handing us our sleeping mats, they asked us to sign a waiver that states that we weren’t forced to go there and that we surrendered. Not came to report, but surrendered. Surrender, that’s such a bad word, like you did something illegal.)  The stories countered what DOJ Undersecretary and Spokesperson Markk Perete had told reporters in a press briefing on September 20, where he said that some convicts qualified for release refused to leave Bilibid even if they were already being urged by prison guards.

“What we knew were these surrenderers voluntarily returned. How or what made them return, we do not have any idea…If indeed such threats were made, an investigation would be required,” said Perete.


Ralph*, 67 years old and a GCTA grantee, said he returned on good faith, trusting the word of officials that he would be released after a few days. Days turned to months: He has been in jail since September 17 and has not been released as of December 13.

Ralph’s daughter Mara* told Rappler her father’s name was not on the list when they got to the Bilibid gate. Ralph was convicted of kidnapping for ransom.

The same thread pierces returnees’ stories: personnel who processed them in Bilibid didn’t seem to know what they were doing, didn’t project credibility to vet papers, but had one purpose and one purpose only – to get them all back in jail. “Mukhang ang orientation ay putol. Kami ay nagre-receive, hindi kami naggagawa ng solusyon (The orientation is cut, they only receive and don’t find a solution),” Villanueva said, quoting the personnel who processed him.

Sabi namin, isama na namin siya pauwi kasi wala naman siya dito, sabi sa ‘min hindi, it turned out mga OJT sila. Sabi ko, ‘Sir baka puwedeng iwan ‘yung contact details,’ pero hindi daw puwede, para sa amin baka it wouldn’t take that much time kasi eligible naman,” Mara said, again giving her trust to the Duterte administration.

Naniwala kami, nagtiwala kami, anong petsa na?” she added.

(We told them that they should just let him come home with us. They told us no. Turns out, they’re only doing their on-the-job training. I told them, “Sir, maybe we can leave our contact details,” but they declined. But we thought it’ll only take a short time because we’re eligible. We believed them. We trusted them. Then what happened?) 

Ano ba ang batas natin, laruan?” Roleda said. (What’s our law, something they can trifle with?)

Welcome to Bilibid

Some of the returnees were detained in the notorious Maximum Security Compound while serving their sentences. Their experience when they returned was much worse.  They were handed their biyaya, the Tagalog word for blessing, which, in prison language, meant sleeping mats and prisoner uniforms. It felt every bit the opposite of a blessing as they began to have a sinking feeling they would be staying in Bilibid for long. 

Sa maximum kasi kumbaga yung loob mo kampante ka na kasi mayroon kang sentensya,” Roleda said. “Naghihintay kami sa wala. Natutulog kami, hindi namin puwede sabihin na sa umaga, bawas na naman ang aming sentensya.” 

(At least our length of stay inside maximum was definite because we had a sentence. Here, we’re waiting for nothing. We sleep but we can’t say in the morning that our sentence had been reduced.) 

They found themselves in a perpetual state of displacement. Returnees were moved from one area of the detention complex to another without receiving any significant update about their release.

Wala kang magagawa,” Villanueva said. “Nagtatanong kami hanggang ilang buwan, ilang araw, hindi nila masagot kung ilang eksaktong araw o buwan na kailangan namin ilagi doon.” 

(We can’t do anything. We always asked them until what month, day, they couldn’t answer exactly how many days or months that we need to stay there.) 

From the Halfway House, an area usually reserved for inmates nearing the end of their sentence, they were transferred to the Medium Security Compound where many slept on the concrete walkways exposed to the elements. They remember the rain rousing them from slumber.

Tapos pag tigil ng ulan, basa ang semento, latagan lang ng karton, higa na ulit. Ganoon ang nangyari,” Roleda said. (When it stops, even if the cement is still wet, we just lay on cartons and go back to sleep. That’s what’s happening there.) 

Ralph said many contemplated escape because no one seemed to watch out for them. In the end, the fear of putting their family at risk kept them from any escape attempts.

Ngayon lahat sila nagsisisi sila na sumuko sila, kasi kung ganun naman daw yung aabutin nila (Now they regret returning, had they known this is what awaited them, they wouldn’t have),” said Mara.

The returnees spent 5 days in the Medium Security Compound, before being turned over to the Minimum Security Compound – a different monster from what they were used to. 

Sa minimum, para kaming baka na pinakawalan sa loob (We were like cows let loose in Minimum),” Roleda recalled.

They were mixed with more than 200 people detained inside the Minimum Security Compound. Home was a basketball court with a rusted and hole-riddled roof. Men had to make do with the concrete pavement, except when rainwater came rushing in during thunderstorms. 

Sabihan ba naman kami na, o, wala na tayong sapat na area na paglalagyan sa inyo, bahala na kayo diyan,” said Christian Espenilla, 35 years old, who was freed on parole in 2016. “Syempre kami, hindi naman namin alam ang kalakaran doon sa loob.”

(They dared tell us that they don’t have enough area to house all of us and that we should just fend for ourselves. Of course we didn’t know how things work inside.) 

Getting good sleep played out as a nightly mission for survival. Those who knew detainees staying inside the concrete buildings, like Ralph, forced themselves into bunk beds made for one.

They also had to be careful of the gang-drawn borders. The advice is to keep the head down, sleep where there is space left, and wait until it’s over. To survive, they have learned, means evading all sources of conflict.

Ang interpretasyon nila, kapag nagtagal kami, aagawan namin sila ng location,” Villanueva said. “Kapag inimplement mo ang pagtulog, masama ang mukha nila, eh ayaw namin ng away, eh di kahit sa tabi-tabi na lang, kahit madumihan, okay lang.”

(Their interpretation is that if we stayed longer, we would take over their locations. When you ask them to let you sleep in their area, they frown. We don’t want to get on their nerves and get in trouble, so we’ll just sleep wherever, even if we get dirty.)  Some returnees found respite in their 3-week stay under the roof of the goonless Bilibid visitors’ area. They also didn’t have to lie on concrete. They just had to pull together tables and chairs into makeshift beds. Finding humor in the situation, the returnees said they turned into repairmen as they always found themselves beneath tables. Kahit naiihi ka na, hindi ka puwedeng bumangon kasi magigising mo ang nasa upuan eh. Wala madadaanan,” Espenilla said.  (Even If you want to pee, you couldn’t get up because you’d wake up the others sleeping on the chairs. You have nowhere to pass.)

Like the law, the rules inside also failed them.

One night, on his way back to the visitors’ area to retire for the night, Roleda heard commotion among inmates. Before he knew it, he was staring at the barrel of an armalite with a visibly angry officer holding the trigger. 

Sabi sa akin, dapa, kung hindi ka dumapa, puputukan kita so dumapa ako sa semento, basa-basa pa,” Roleda recalled. “Sabi ko, baka puwede punta na ako sa higaan, matutulog na ako. Sabi, sige pero dahan-dahan lang…Nakahinga na ako nang maluwag nung nakalusot na ako sa ilalim ng la mesa.

(He told me to drop on the floor or else he’d shoot me so I did it on the wet floor. I asked him if I could go to bed now to sleep. He said, okay, but carefully. I was only able to breathe easy when I was under the table already.)

Sabi ko, grabe naman ito kasi hindi ako nakaranas ng lungkot at pighati sa karanasan ko sa Maximum,” he added. “Ditong returnee ako, saka ako nakaranas ng ganito.

(I said, this is insane because I only experienced this now as a returnee, not even when I was detained in Maximum.) 

Even the chapel – the last resort for many of the inmates – was off-limits at night.

Dapat doon, iyong mga nag-aasikaso sa mga departamentong malalaki, tiyakin nila na sa oras ng kagipitan ng mga tao, patulugin nila dahil simbahan iyon eh,” Villanueva said. (Department heads should make sure that at trying times, they should let the inmates sleep because it’s a church.)

DECEMBER LETTER. A letter signed by 91 returnees and sent to Rappler detailing the conditions inside the New Bilibid Prison.

Returnees die

Through a letter sent to Rappler, 91 returnees claimed they have seen 3 returnees die.

Karamihan ay nagkakasakit na, marami na pong nadadala sa NBP hospital at dahil sa sakit ay tatlo na ang namamatay na returnees,” they said in the letter. (Many are getting sick and sent to the NBP hospital. Because of sickness, at least 3 returnees have died.)

In September, while staying at the Halfway House, one inmate died after suffering from a heart attack, according to the returnees. He was not rushed to the hospital on time by authorities, even after pleas from other inmates.  “Sabi ng isang empleyado, painumin niyo ng kumukulong mantika, parang joke, pero seryoso na iyong hiling ng mga inmate dahil hindi naman niya nakikita,” Villanueva recalled. “Sabi niya, wala iyan, mantikang pakuluan ang i-ano mo diyan para mabuhay, eh di na-delay ang sasakyan, namatay nang tuluyan.” 

(One employee said that he should be given boiling cooking oil, just like a joke, but the inmates were serious already with their plea, but he couldn’t see. He said, “Give him boiling cooking oil so he’ll live.” So the ambulance was delayed and he died.) 

They also heard of an inmate who slipped and fell in the bathroom then died from a concussion at past midnight. It was only then when he was rushed to the hospital, according to one returnee.

Sabi ng mga returnee, kung kailan patay na, saka itinakbo nang husto,” Bodino said. “Iyong naghihingalo pa, hindi nila ginagawa iyong ganyan na parang nagmamadali sila.

(Returnees said, they rush when the person is already dead. When they’re dying or at the brink of death, they don’t do that.)

BuCor spokesman Gabby Chaclag confirmed fatalities among the returnees, telling Rappler that 4 returnees have died.

Under the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRTP) set by the United Nations, “sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.” 

Depriving them of adequate food can be considered “torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Just wait On December 4, Bodino, Villanueva, Roleda, and Espenilla walked out of Bilibid. Two others in their group, Apolonio Barado and Arnulfo Boates, who were also released on conditional pardon, remain inside.

Villanueva said that for fear of being sent back, he immediately left the gates of the Minimum Security Compound and forgot to ask about his friends.

In their harrowing 3-month stay, they said no official had anything definitive to say.

Ginawa kami nila na mas lalong kinawawa noong bumalik kami (They made us even more miserable when we came back),” Bodino said. 

Papaasahin ka. Hintay lang. Ang theme song namin doon, basta maghintay ka lamang,” said Rodina. (They would make you hope. Just wait. Our theme song then was, just wait.)

Sa Bilibid, kapag pinangakuan ka sapat na, kapag tinupad, kalabisan na,” said Espenilla. (In Bilibid, when you’re promised something, that’s enough. If it’s granted, that’s way too much.)

The Revised Penal Code criminalizes arbitrary detention or the detention of any person without legal grounds. DOJ spokesperson Perete believes it was not the case.

“My understanding is, they were not treated in the interim as prisoners, in fact, they were not returned to the jails where they used to inhabit,” he said, adding that he cannot promise redress for those who suffered almost 3 months in jail without a charge or a warrant.

“All these conditions you’re raising at this point really are causes for concern, and at the proper time, an investigation would have to be conducted,” he added.

Ralph’s daughter Mara is thinking of finally taking a legal step, fed up with always having to face blank walls whenever they seek for answers.

Nobody cares kasi patapon ang buhay, convicted, dapat diyan patayin. Ganun naman reaksyon nila eh, di ba?” Mara said, crying. (Nobody cares because their lives are a waste, they’re convicted so they should be killed. That’s their reaction, right?)

Perete said they are treating the returnees and releases as being all still under review. Defending the adjustments to, as he called them, “birthing pains,” Perete said the government was eventually able to “adopt a more circumspect policy.”

But as the top level of bureaucracy managed its performance indicators, family members like Mara wait in vain.

“Half ng buhay niya andun na siya eh, puwede ba yung natitira sa ‘min naman?” Mara asked. (He already spent half of his life in jail, can we have what’s remaining of it?) – Rappler.com

READ: Part 2 | Unqualified GCTA returnees lose jobs, are detained for months 

Top photo of the New Bilibid Prison by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.
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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.