By Macon Araneta

Senate President Vicente Sotto III on July 20  filed Senate Resolution No. 468 to investigate the death from COVID-19 of inmates at the New Bilibid Prison, including high profile drug lords, one of who was a  witness in the drug charges against detained Sen. Leila de Lima.

In his resolution, Sotto noted that a ranking police official, who was aware of the supposed COVID-19 deaths inside the Muntinlupa penitentiary said that “(Bureau of Corrections or BuCor) could have just replaced the body with another inmate and declared the death of a high-profile inmate.”

Sotto did not identify the ranking police official but  raised the question, “How would we know? There were no more fingerprints,” said Sotto.

Due to unclear, inaccurate, and unverified reports, he said speculations are now being made as to whether or not the said Bilibid inmates actually died due to COVID-19.

Sotto also cited the alarming news that at least nine high-profile inmates at the NBP, mostly convicted drug lords and detained in Building 14 (a highly secured facility inside the maximum security compound) died of COVID-19.

While BuCor Chief Gerald Bantag said  there were inmates who died due to the new coronavirus disease, he did not disclose their identities, invoking the Data Privacy Act.

However, he confirmed there were Filipino and Chinese drug lords who succumbed to the respiratory ailment.

Also based on the log of the Panteon de Dasmarinas Public Cemetery in Dasmarinas, Cavite, and according to its OIC Liezl Camaganacan, Sotto said convicted drug lord Jaybee Sebastian’s body was cremated by them on July 18.  

Sebastian was among those who testified that De Lima received drug money from convicted drug lords in Bilibid to bankroll  her senatorial campaign in the 2016 elections.

Sotto said some names including Marcelo, Zhang and Hung were likewise among the 28 bodies that Panteon had cremated since May 31.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga said no autopsies were conducted on the bodies cremated at the Panteon. He stated that BuCor paid Dasmarinas City PHP15,000 for each deceased prisoner “but our people at the crematorium were not to open the body bags anymore. So long as there were death certificates and the proper papers, the bodies were cremated.”

Based on published reports, Sotto said, BuCor on June 4 reported 222 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths among its inmates. Ten days later,  the BuCor registered  301 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths. 

Meanwhile, De Lima said her lawyers are still assessing the effect of Sebastian’s death on the drug cases against her, considering that he was the Duterte regime’s supposed “star” witness.

“However, all testimonies coming from the inmates and some other so-called witnesses are all fabrications anyway. One less fabrication might be good in my case but let us not forget all the other testimony fabrications. Whether the fabricator is dead or alive does not change the fact that their stories are all lies and that the cases against me are all fake,” explained De Lima. 

A former DOJ secretary, De Lima said a  judge worth his or her salt and who is still independent of Malacañang would readily see through all this manufactured persecution of an opposition figure. 

Senators  are divided over the conduct of a Senate probe on death from COVID-19 of Bilibid inmates.

Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa,  former director of the BuCor in Muntinlupa City,  has misgivings about an inquiry. He is the chair of the Senate committee on Public Order, which is supposed to lead the Senate investigation. 

Sought for his comment on a probe, Dela Rosa stressed he sees no basis. He said the new coronavirus spares no one. He also mentioned that even the British Prime Minister was hit by the novel virus. 

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said he  will talk to Dela Rosa to conduct a Senate probe on the matter.  He said the inquiry  will look into reports that inmates succumbed to the coronavirus disease at the NBP and other detention facilities in the country.

Zubiri stressed that even an inmate, whether high profile or low profile,  has the right to a safe detention facility. 

Sen. Bong Go assured he will support Sotto’s call for an investigation.  He said the cause of death, especially of the high-profile drug lords,  should be clarified  and the failures of authorities to address their concerns, if there were. 

Reacting to Sebastian’s case, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said, “Unless there is very compelling reason to suspect any foul play and, as of now there is none. Personally, I’d rather focus on more pressing matters than be distracted by the deaths of drug convicts who showed no remorse and continued their drug operations right under the noses of prison officials.”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon rebuked Bantag for refusing to reveal  the real conditions and reported deaths of inmates at the Bilibid by invoking the Data Privacy Act.

What’s BuCor hiding? Moreover, transparency is an effective mechanism to guard against abuses such as fake or simulated deaths,” he stressed.

Drilon, a former Justice secretary, said the BuCor is wrong to invoke the Data Privacy Act.  He said death is not sensitive personal information protected by the Data Privacy Act and that a death certificate is in fact a public document required to be filed upon any person’s death.