Bureau of Corrections

[Newspoint] Beyond Percy Lapid

Vergel O. Santos
[Newspoint] Beyond Percy Lapid
Possibly sensing his past catching up with him, Bantag now sings what sounds like a whistleblower’s tune. And, with Duterte as his champion and Marcos as Remulla’s, he could be driving a wedge through the ruling alliance.

“Just kill me, because I know what will happen to me inside the jail. I am not like the senators, big-time personalities who could be protected. And if they say I am their target…this government and I should just kill each other.”

That’s Gerald Bantag speaking, upon his suspension as director general of the Bureau of Corrections on suspicion of masterminding the murder of broadcast journalist Percy Mabasa (known on the air as Percy Lapid) in an ambush in Las Piñas on October 3, as he drove home.

Those are words fraught with signs that point further than the investigators dare to go. Never mind that Bantag is denying any part in the murder; he is accusing Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla of covering up a practice of protecting people more powerful than he. It was Remulla who, as his immediate boss, had him suspended, on orders of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Bantag is hard put to make a case for himself in any case. He has been a target of Lapid’s criticisms, and an inmate named by the gunman as his go-between for the assassination died in Bantag’s custody before he could say anything; he was ostensibly stricken with bangungot (heart failure suffered in one’s sleep) in the noonday heat, right inside his cell.

National Bureau of Investigation coroners support the finding, but Raquel Fortun, the forensic pathologist whose word on such matters is invariably sought, pronounces asphyxia, more specifically suffocation by plastic bag. On the heels of her pronouncement, more of the dead inmate’s fellows have come forward to confess knowing about the apparent rubout, if not being complicit in it.

Meanwhile, more penitentiary deaths have been uncovered, all 176 occurring in Bantag’s time. Many of the bodies have remained unclaimed at the funeral parlor contracted by the penitentiary to take care of them, and most have become too degraded to allow for reliable forensics.

Killings and riots had in fact characterized Bantag’s wardenship of various Metro Manila jails – Caloocan, Malabon, Parañaque – but still President Duterte made him boss of all the nation’s prisons, in 2019. Possibly sensing his past catching up with him, Bantag now sings what sounds like a whistleblower’s tune. And, with Duterte as his champion and Marcos as Remulla’s, he could be driving a wedge through the ruling alliance.

That’s precisely the path Remulla seems trying to avoid. He has been quick to declare no reason to take the investigation beyond Bantag, dismissing suspicions, raised by Lapid’s family, of the involvement of higher-ups. Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri agrees with him, and that might explain Bantag’s mention of “senators” among what he has described as a protected class.

The issue burned in full fury as Remulla spoke before the United Nations Human Rights Council. To us local audiences, he has portrayed Bantag’s removal as the beginning of an earnest overhaul of the correctional institutions and as evidence of the judicial system working well. 

But working well for whom? We, of course, know better. We know for one thing – as Bantag himself does, and in fact mentions it – that a son of Remulla’s has been indicted for mere drug possession after being caught red-handed and spared tests that would have shown whether he was a user himself – though not necessarily a dealer – and not one who just happened to find one’s innocent hands catching a drug delivery.

I don’t know that when the UN Human Rights Council listened to Remulla it had known about Lapid and Bantag and Remulla’s son or was interested in any of that. I would imagine that its chief interest revolved around Duterte and his drug war, which, after all, has long been the subject of an investigation by International Criminal Court prosecutors.

If Remulla’s mission was to make both Duterte and his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., look good in the context of the drug war, which Marcos has decided to continue, it was a mission impossible. When Remulla told the council the Marcos presidency was “refocusing” Duterte’s war, he implicitly acknowledged that it had been misfocused. In fact, it was infinitely worse than misfocused; it was brutal by humanity’s standards, and that’s precisely why the international prosecutors have stepped in.

Sure enough, the UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, Gustavo Gonzalez, told the same council in the same forum: “We need results in the form of successful investigations and prosecutions trials that conform to international standards. Increased efforts in this area must include increasing transparency on the status of investigations and on any obstacles to achieving justice, and sustained engagement with civil society and victims.”

Back from his failed UN mission, Remulla has yet to deal with Bantag and the potentially explosive unravelling he is capable of setting off. – Rappler.com

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