Senators see ground for prisons chief’s ouster
MANILA, Philippines — Two senators on Wednesday said the chief of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) should either go on leave or be fired for not reporting the deaths of high-profile prisoners at New Bilibid Prison supposedly of COVID-19.
The deaths of 21 prisoners, including at least nine drug convicts, became known earlier this week when journalists got hold of a leaked list of those who had died.
One of the dead drug convicts was Jaybee Sebastian, who testified for the government in a congressional investigation of Sen. Leila de Lima, who was accused of drug trading at Bilibid after opening an inquiry into alleged extrajudicial killings in President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
De Lima has been detained for three years on drug charges, which she has denied.
Suspicions of irregularity
The unreported deaths of the prisoners, who were buried or cremated without being autopsied, had aroused suspicions of irregularity in Bilibid, the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City where wealthy inmates had been found living in style and influential drug convicts trading narcotics under the nose of supposedly unknowing prison officials.
BuCor chief Gerald Bantag has confirmed the deaths of Sebastian and eight other convicts whose identities he has refused to disclose, invoking the Data Privacy Act.
Bantag’s refusal to give information has set off calls for an investigation of the prison deaths, with Senate President Vicente Sotto III saying the deaths have left “too many unanswered questions” and Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto pressing for pictures and videos of the bodies to dispel suspicions that the deaths have been faked.
On Wednesday, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he was tempted to call for Bantag’s firing and said the BuCor chief could not claim presumption of regularity for his actions given the agency’s history of involvement in irregularities.
“I am tempted to say fire him and dismiss him, because he appears to be oblivious of the issue of public interest,” Drilon said in a television interview.
The opposition leader said the people had no confidence in the BuCor, given its involvement in controversies such as the sale of good conduct time allowance so that convicts’ prison terms could be shortened.
“We lawyers have that principle in public offices, public officials are presumed to be performing their official functions. However, that presumption of the BuCor because of the record of past [irregularities] that we have unearthed in the Senate, like the sale of good conduct allowance, etc., this presumption or regularity in the performance of official duties cannot be maintained, because the people no longer have confidence in the officials of BuCor,” Drilon said.
He said there was so much suspicion because there had been no photos or videos of the bodies, and the body bags were not opened before the prisoners were cremated.
“That is precisely the problem. It enhances the suspicion that something is amiss, something is not right and something is being hidden. Such action does not merit his continued stay in the BuCor,” he said, referring to Bantag.
Ground for dismissal
Sen. Richard Gordon, who would be leading the probe into the prison deaths, said failing to report the inmates’ deaths to the authorities could be a ground for Bantag’s dismissal.
“If I were him, I would submit a proper report and then temporarily go on leave,” Gordon told reporters in an interview.
The new controversy at the BuCor is “not good” for the President, he said.
“But the secretary of justice and the President can extricate themselves from this quagmire by doing something about it right away. Either take [Bantag] out and put somebody who knows how to run a prison,” he said.
Gordon said the BuCor should have reported the COVID-19 infections as well as the deaths of inmates to the authorities as this was basic procedure.
Otherwise, the deaths are really suspicious and the BuCor has to explain its actions, he said.
Gordon also took note of a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph saying the Philippines has been enjoying a trade in faking people’s deaths, and said he could look into this during his inquiry.
“The world is laughing at us. We’re being mocked. The world’s leader in fake deaths. There’s fake news, now there’s fake deaths,” he said.
On Tuesday, Gordon said BuCor officials may be administratively liable for grave misconduct for not following the rules in handling the inmates’ illness and death in Bilibid.
“That’s misconduct, grave misconduct. Under what authority do you release a prisoner? Do you say he died of COVID and therefore I sent him right away and he was cremated, and you know damn well and good that he is a high-profile prisoner,” he said.
BuCor officials should have been careful, especially given the history of irregularities in the agency, he added.
The officials did not perform their duties properly and did it in a negligent way, “a negligence so gross as to amount to bad faith,” he said.
There is also absolute misconduct in allowing prisoners to die without giving them proper treatment, he said.
The rule is to bring COVID-19 patients to a hospital that handles coronavirus cases, he added.
Gordon also said the Department of Health (DOH), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Supreme Court should have been informed that the inmates had COVID-19, and that they had died.
“It’s really important that there should be a protocol followed when an inmate dies, especially in this time of a pandemic. They should not make a decision all by themselves,” he said.
Commenting on the senators’ statements, BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag said it was not easy to vacate a “sensitive position.”
“As long as the trust of the government and the people is with the leadership of the organization, we don’t quit,” he said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who had summoned Bantag to explain the prison deaths, said on Wednesday that he had directed the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the demise of the nine drug convicts.
He said the NBI would investigate to see if there was truth to the suspicions about the deaths.
Citing Bantag’s report, Guevarra also said 476 prisoners died of various causes between January and July, including the 21 inmates who died of COVID-19.
Guevarra said he did not find the figure alarming, as the BuCor had explained that two to three prisoners die of various causes in prisons across the country every day.
With 476 deaths from Jan. 1 to July 19, the BuCor found the average daily death to be 2.3, he said.
“We can say that is not substantially higher than the daily average during the past year. There is a slight increase and I suppose that is because of COVID-19,” Guevarra said.
—With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan and Dexter Cabalza
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