House probe into Bilibid inmates' death pressed

A House leader filed a resolution calling for a legislative inquiry into the reported death of convicted high-profile drug lords and other inmates at the New Bilibid Prisons.

In his House Resolution 1090, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said many sectors, even government leaders are doubting the reports that these inmates died due to coronavirus disease (COVID019).

Rodriguez urged the House committee on justice to look into the reports of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to determine if there is really no body-switching.

Reports said that on July 20, nine inmates, including Jaybee Sebastian, a convicted kidnapper and carnapper, who served as a witness and co-accused in one of the drug cases against Sen. Leila de Lima, had died from COVID-19.

Sebastian’s death certificate showed that he died of heart attack and COVID-19 was listed as among “other significant conditions contributing to death.”

Likewise, a list of Bilibid prisoners who reportedly succumbed to the novel coronavirus disease was “mysteriously circulated.”

Rodriguez, a senior vice chairman of the House committee on justice, added that the list included Benjamin Marcelo, leader of Chinese convicts at Bilibid, Zhang Zhu Li, Jimmy Kin Sing Hung, Francis Go, Jimmy Yang, Eugene Chua, Ryan Ong, and Amin Imam Buratong.

He pointed out that when asked about the list, Bureau of Corrections spokesman Gabriel Chaclag released a statement of BuCor chief Gerald Bantag, who admitted there had been deaths but refused to identify the dead purportedly because naming the deceased inmates is prohibited by the Data Privacy Law.

However, National Privacy Commission Commissioner Mon Liboro subsequently declared that information about the inmates could be released since the convicts “had become public figures on account of their previous association with particular national issues in the past,” he said.

There were reports that the Pantheon de Dasmariñas in Dasmariñas City, Cavite had cremated 28 bodies since May, including those of Sebastian, Marcelo, Zhang, and Hung; while the Manila North Cemetery cremated a body identified as Eugene Chua.

The BuCor, to prove that the inmates had indeed died, presented to the media on July 22 copies of the death certificates of Boratong, Chua, Go, Marcelo, Yang, Zhang, and Sherwin Sanchez, and a notice of death for Hung Kin Sing, also known as Jimmy Ang, with the documents showing that the deaths occurred in May and June.

“Because of the initial refusal of the BuCor to release the names of the inmates who died, speculations and other questions have been raised whether the deaths of high-profile inmates were faked or simulated,” Rodriguez said.

He said there were even reports of “body-switching, in which dead prisoners who are cremated due to COVID-19 are falsely identified so that high-profile inmates could go free.”

“There are too many questions and mysterious circumstances surrounding the ‘death’ of these inmates and there is a need to look further and investigate the matter,” he added.

Guevarra hails Senate over Bilibid deaths quiz

JUSTICE Secretary Menardo Guevarra lauded the Senate's decision to wait for the result of a formal investigation into the deaths of high profile inmates before proceeding with its own hearings. 

“I’m glad that Sen. (Richard) Gordon has decided to await the results of the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) investigation before considering the conduct of a Senate probe on the same subject,” Guevarra said. 

“The NBI has the necessary expertise to verify the relevant facts,” he continued, adding the NBI has already submitted an initial report.

Gordon recently announced that the Senate will conduct an investigation into the controversial deaths of high-profile inmates like Jaybee Niño Sebastian allegedly due to COVID-19 complications. 

The NBI was formally tasked to launch a probe into the death of Sebastian and eight other high-profile inmates in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. 

The NBI through Officer-In-Charge Eric Distor was directed to undertake an investigation and file charges against anyone if necessary. The bureau was given 10 days to come up with an initial result. 

Sebastian reportedly died while undergoing treatment at the NBP hospital for acute myocardial infarction as a complication of COVID-19.

Sebastian hogged the headlines when he testified before a House committee investigating the alleged involvement of detained Sen. Leila de Lima in the illegal drugs trade in 2016.

De Lima has consistently denied all the allegations against her.

The lawmaker is currently detained at the Custodial Center of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Camp Crame, Quezon City as she faces three drug charges filed by the DOJ before the courts.

With Hector Lawas