The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) should have promptly informed the justice and health departments that high-value inmates at the New Bilibid Prison were sick with COVID-19, or that they have died of it, Senator Richard Gordon said on Tuesday, July 21.
The fact that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had to be apprised by BuCor chief Gerald Bantag two days after the alleged death of Bilibid inmate Jaybee Sebastian does not inspire confidence in the bureau, and leaves room for suspicion, Gordon said in a virtual media briefing.
“Hindi ko sinasabing nakakawala na ‘yan, pero they have to prove to us na patay talaga ‘yan,” the senator said, referring to Sebastian, a convicted drug trafficker who was the main witness in the illegal drug cases against Senator Leila de Lima.
(I’m not saying he has escaped, but they have to prove to us that he is really dead.)
Bantag and any prison officer should know that they cannot just dispose of the body of life-term prisoners, especially high-profile ones, because they will have to make an accounting to the Supreme Court.
If Sebastian and 8 other high-value convicts reported dead really contracted COVID-19, then they should have been referred to the appropriate hospitals or facilities supervised by the Department of Health.
Their situation should have been on record and monitored closely, Gordon said. Instead, news of the inmates’ deaths appeared to have surprised the BuCor’s own superiors, including Guevarra.
The Bilibid prison officers not only seem to have broken protocols in managing coronavirus patients, but they also flouted other standard procedures such as allowing relatives to see the bodies of the deceased inmates before they were sent away for cremation.
“There really is all the hallmarks of a cover-up on [Sebastian’s] death,” said Gordon, who has begun an informal probe ahead of the legislative investigation ordered by Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
Whoever were responsible for handling the remains of Sebastian and the other alleged COVID-19 fatalities from Bilibid are guilty of grave misconduct “at the very least” because it was all done “in a very negligent way – negligence so gross, it amounts to bad faith,” Gordon said.
Sebastian reportedly died on Saturday, July 18, and was “immediately cremated” without an autopsy at a cemetery in Dasmariñas City, Cavite, the same evening, the BuCor earlier said. The crematorium workers did not verify the identities of bodies sent from Bilibid either, according to a report cited by a Senate resolution on Monday, July 20.
The protocol was to cremate bodies of COVID-19 fatalities within 12 hours of death, Bantag earlier said.
The BuCor, which manages the national penitentiary, should have been a lot more conscientious about its work because it had just come out of a highly controversial investigation of the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) last year, Gordon said.
Some inmates, jailers, and even doctors working at Bilibid allegedly ran a bribery scheme to shorten convicts’ jail terms, and Gordon recommended filing charges against a number of suspects from the BuCor itself.
The senator mentioned other anomalies involving Bilibid: a thriving illegal drug trade, prisoners sneaking out aided by jailers, and other forms of corruption.
Gordon said he was “scandalized” at yet another apparent attempt to “pull one over us.”
Knowing “damn well” that Sebastian was a high-profile prisoner, the jailers should have been more fastidious in reporting his death and handling his remains, the senator added.
“Ano? Sasabihin na lang nila, ‘Trust us?' (What? Will they just say, ‘Trust us’?) The record of the penitentiary is abysmally awful,” Gordon added.
The BuCor’s only way through would be to present photos or CCTV footage of the dead inmates’ bodies, as Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said earlier on Tuesday. Otherwise, Gordon said it is difficult to imagine how else their deaths can be proven if all that’s left are their supposed cremated remains.
Gordon said he is concerned that the government appears to be incapable of solving crimes that have perennially hounded the country – even inside the national penitentiary.
“This government really, really appears to be not capable of fixing problems involving corruption, involving peace and order. I know that’s a hard thing to say but I am saying it because walang naso-solve na crime halos. Kakaunti lang naso-solve na crime (almost no crimes are solved. Only a few crimes are solved),” the senator said.
The government is quick to go after the likes of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and media giant ABS-CBN but slow when it comes to killings that have become increasingly rampant, Gordon noted.
Ressa was recently convicted of cyber libel over a Rappler article published before the cybercrime law took effect. ABS-CBN was ordered off the air after the House of Representatives killed its broadcast franchise. Rappler and ABS-CBN have been targets of President Rodrigo Duterte’s anger over critical coverage of his administration.
Duterte must not be lenient with the BuCor this time, as he tends to be towards law enforcement agencies and officers despite accusations of wrongdoing, Gordon said.
“I want to hear what the President would say. He should chastise them right away. He should no longer say he is backing them up. It would really anger the people,” the senator said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Gordon meanwhile spoke positively of Guevarra’s efforts to clear up the matter. The justice secretary has been pushing for more control over the national penitentiary, ever since the GCTA mess.
The Senate is set to resume its regular session on Monday, July 27, the day of Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address. The senators are expected to name a committee to look into the alleged Bilibid deaths.
Gordon heads the Senate’s blue ribbon, and justice and human rights committees, either of which are likely to be assigned the probe. – Rappler.com
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.