Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe

Special Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe
A police officer on board an armored vehicle patrols a neighborhood to enforce the reimposed lockdown amid a spike in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases, in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 July 2020

Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe

Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe
  • Officials push for inquiry into ‘suspicious’ deaths, including leading drug figures

MANILA: The hasty cremation of inmates in a Philippines prison has led to calls for greater transparency from prison authorities and lawmakers in the country.

The prisoners reportedly died of coronavirus-related illness, but Senate President Vicente Sotto III called for an inquiry into the deaths, claiming “there are too many unanswered questions.”

In a tweet on Tuesday, Sotto said: “If the inmates died of COVID-19 or were killed for some reason, that will be no issue to some. But what if they are missing? Shall we turn a blind eye?”

Among the victims at the New Bilibid Prison were major figures in the drug world.

On Tuesday, the Philippines Department of Justice asked the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the matter.

“Why are there no autopsies? Were relatives informed? Why was the justice department not told?” Sotto asked.

In a Senate resolution, Sotto said: “Due to unclear, inaccurate and unverified reports, speculations are now being made as to whether these inmates actually died from coronavirus.”

On Saturday, it was rumored that Jaybee Sebastian, a convicted kidnapper who had linked Sen. Leila De Lima to the illicit drug trade at the prison when De Lima was justice secretary, had allegedly died from coronavirus.

De Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, has been detained at the Philippine National Police custodial center in Camp Crame for three years.

Besides Sebastian, other alleged COVID-19 deaths included nine Filipino and Chinese drug figures.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Corrections, which is in charge of the prison, confirmed the inmates died from COVID-19, but refused to reveal their identities, citing data laws.

On Monday, Justice Secretary Medardo Guevarra summoned Gen. Gerald Bantag, the corrections bureau director, for a briefing on the issue, after which the Justice Department confirmed the death of Sebastian and several other inmates.

Bantag told Guevarra that 21 inmates had died from COVID-19 since March.

He also informed Guevarra that the cremation of bodies has been carried out within 12 hours to prevent the spread of infection.

Bantag welcomed the investigation by the bureau.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Gordon called for a probe into the deaths, saying he “cannot accept the word of the corrections bureau.”

He added: “Not only Jaybee Sebastian but all the Chinese dealers, I have to know that they really died. I don’t believe just on the say-so of the prisons bureau.”

The bureau “has not earned public trust,” Gordon said.

De Lima questioned the bureau’s refusal to disclose the names of the 10 high-profile inmates, adding: “If they are truly dead, then they must have death certificates, a public document that is accessible to the public.”