MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday (July 20) ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to look into the alleged deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) of at least nine persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) including high-profile inmates at the National Bilibid Prisons (NBP) in Muntinlupa City.
In a statement issued by the DOJ, Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director Gerald Bantag confirmed to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra in a meeting earlier in the day that a total of 21 PDLs died of COVID-19 since March of this year.
Bantag, however, assured Guevarra that standard protocols are being followed in the event of a death of an inmate from COVID-19 including the mandatory cremation within 12 hours to contain the spread of the virus.
He also assured that health conditions within the penitentiary are under control and only five PDLs are in isolation at the Bureau’s largest isolation facility, ‘Site Harry.’
There were reports that high-profile inmates have died of COVID-19 and were cremated including drug lord Jaybee Sebastian who is set to testify in the illegal drug case against detained Senator Leila De Lima.
Bantag didn’t reveal details of what transpired in his meeting with Guevarra but he said the Bureau welcomes an independent investigation on the matter.
DOJ Undersecretary Mark Perete later in the afternoon confirmed that indeed high-profile inmate Jaybee Sebastion has died and has been cremated.
Meanwhile, Senate President Vicente Sotto III filed a resolution seeking to probe the deaths of the PDLs as there are ‘too many unanswered questions’ as regards the case including a report on the autopsy and why the Bureau did not inform the DOJ right away.
Before the day ended, the DOJ issued an authority to the NBI to conduct an investigation on the reported deaths of Sebastian and eight other convicts allegedly of COVID-19 and, “if evidence warrants, to file appropriate charges against all persons involved and found responsible for any unlawful act” in connection with the case.
Reacting to BuCor’s position of not disclosing the names of the concerned high-profile inmates citing privacy issues, Privacy Commissioner Raymond Liboro, on the other hand, stressed that the Data Privacy Act “is not a cloak for denying the public’s right to know.”
He said high-profile inmates like Sebastian had become public figures on account of their previous association with particular national issues in the past.
“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.
For its part, Malacañang through Presidential Spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque said it is letting Secretary Guevarra carry out the investigation on the matter. —MNP (with inputs from Dante Amento / Rosalie Coz / Rey Pelayo)
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