Deaths of high-profile NBP inmates raise questions – Sotto
MANILA, Philippines — Senate President Vicente Sotto III has “too many unanswered questions” about the death from COVID-19 and cremation of New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmates, a number of them convicted drug lords, and wants the Senate to investigate the matter.
Questions have been raised whether the deaths of high-profile inmates were faked or simulated, as the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has declined to name those who died from the new coronavirus.
Amid the controversy, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the reported deaths of nine drug lords in NBP, including Jaybee Sebastian.
Sebastian was one of the convicts who linked Sen. Leila de Lima, detained for three years now, to the illegal drug trade in the national penitentiary when she was justice secretary.
Guevarra ordered the investigation after his meeting with BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag at the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday.
Bantag confirmed that Sebastian and eight other inmates convicted of drug offenses were among the 21 prisoners, including 15 at NBP, who had died of the new coronavirus since March.
Cremated, no autopsy
He said Sebastian’s body was cremated following the protocol that the remains of an inmate who died of COVID-19 be burned within 12 hours to prevent the spread of infection. Sebastian was cremated without an autopsy.
The BuCor chief reportedly brought only the death certificate for Sebastian, but promised to provide the DOJ with the death certificates and other documents for the eight other high-profile inmates.
“Until such documents are presented, it may be premature to confirm their deaths, much less the cause,” Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said.
Perete, also the DOJ spokesperson, said Bantag welcomed an independent investigation “to dispel any doubt regarding the death of Sebastian and the eight others.”
Sotto on Monday filed a resolution calling for an inquiry into the death of the inmates, including Sebastian.
Data Privacy Act
In his resolution, Sotto said there were reports that several high-profile inmates had succumbed to COVID-19, but Bantag did not disclose their names on the ground that this was prohibited by the Data Privacy Act (DPA) .
Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro said the DPA was not a cloak for denying the public’s right to know.
“There is a justified public interest to release information like details surrounding the deaths from COVID-19 of these high-profile inmates, especially when the personal information being sought is linked to issues already on the minds of the public,’’ Liboro said in a statement.
He noted that high-profile inmates like Sebastian had become public figures because of their previous association with certain national issues, apparently referring to drug trafficking.
Sotto also cited a report quoting an unnamed police official that there was no way of knowing if the BuCor replaced the body of an inmate with that of another person as there were no more fingerprints.
Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the BuCor could not use the DPA as a reason for not disclosing the deaths of the inmates at NBP, adding that there should be transparency in the bureau “to guard against abuses, such as fake or simulated deaths.”
The fact of death is not sensitive personal information protected by the DPA and the death certificate to be filed is a public document, said Drilon, a former justice secretary.
Under the DPA, according to Drilon, sensitive personal information that must not be divulged include one’s race, ethnic origin, marital status, age and religious, philosophical or political affiliation; education, sexual life; social security numbers, health records and tax returns.
Allowing BuCor to keep the list of deceased inmates private is like giving it a license to declare who is dead and who is alive in NBP, according to Drilon.
“I am afraid it can be used to make prisoners disappear, cover up extrajudicial killings and even to fake death,” he said.
Supporting Sotto’s move for an inquiry, Sen. Christopher Go said the cause of death of the inmates had to be known, along with whether there were any lapses on the part of BuCor officials.
But Sen. Panfilo Lacson sees no need for an investigation as there is no indication of foul play.
Sen. Ronald dela Rosa also sees no reason for the Senate to investigate the matter. “COVID doesn’t exclude anyone.”
Among the inmates who died of COVID-19 at NBP was John Paloy, a former Philippine Constabulary commander convicted of the assassination of Evelio Javier in 1986.
A group of inmates’ relatives, meanwhile, criticized what they said was BuCor’s silence on the real situation in its highly congested prisons amid the pandemic.
“It’s been over a month since we last heard of details regarding infections and deaths inside the country’s prisons, where physical isolation, among other health protocols, is in no way possible,” said Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lim.
—With reports from Julie M. Aurelio, Dexter Cabalza and Maricar Cinco
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