BY ASHZEL HACHERO and NOEL TALACAY
BUREAU of Corrections (BuCor) Director Gerald Bantag yesterday dismissed as baloney conspiracy theories the bureau has used COVID-19 deaths to cover up the killing or covert release of nine high-value drug convicts serving time at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
Bantag insisted the nine fatalities, including notorious drug trader Jaybee Sebastian, succumbed to complications caused by the coronavirus disease.
“Ano ako si Satanas na pwede kong sabihin kay COVID na patayin ‘yan lahat? Hindi ako ganun at paano nila sasabihin yun? (Am I Satan to ask COVID to kill them all? I am not that kind of person, and can somebody really do that?),”
Bantag said on radio DZBB.
Bantag said the BuCor has already furnished the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) copies of their reports on the death of a total of 21 inmates who died due to coronavirus complications since March.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has tasked the NBI to look into the deaths of Sebastian and eight other high-profile drug convicts after senators questioned the secrecy that surrounded the deaths and the rush in the cremation of their remains.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III has filed a resolution seeking an inquiry into the deaths, while Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption chair Dante Jimenez said they want an assurance that there was no foul play involved in the deaths.
Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate blue ribbon committee, has said he was planning on opening the Senate probe next week.
The BuCor continues to refuse to disclose the identities of the eight other drug convicts, invoking the Data Privacy Act. Bantag reiterated that the agency followed health protocols that called for the cremation of anyone who died due to COVID-19 within 12 hours.
BuCor spokesman Gabriel Chaclag backed his boss and said the insinuations were nonsense.
“Hindi po totoo yan. Marami po ang nakakakita at imposible na mangyari itong conspiracy because such a grand conspiracy will involve hundreds of personnel, so di naman pwede (There is no truth to it. There are many witnesses and it is impossible for a conspiracy because such a grand conspiracy will involve hundreds of personnel. So it cannot be done),” Chaglag said at the Laging Handa press briefing.
He said aside from witnesses, they have other evidence to prove that Sebastian and the other inmates died due to COVID-19.
“Marami ang nakakita na patay na si Jaybee at hindi lang BuCor personnel kundi pati mga PDLs at personnel ng ibang agencies na partners natin. We have pictures, documents, our doctors na hindi matatawaran ang reputasyon to prove it (There were witnesses who saw Jaybee dead. These are not only BuCor personnel but also other PDLs and personnel of our partner agencies. We have pictures, documents, and our doctors can prove my claims),” Chaclag said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III has filed a resolution seeking an inquiry on the deaths and cremation of the Bilibid inmates while Volunteers against Crime and Corruption chair Dante Jimenez said they want an assurance that there was no foul play involved in the deaths.
Likewise, Chaclag dismissed as pure baloney rumors that Bantag was behind the death of Sebastian and the other high-profile inmates.
“Napakaimposible po ng ganyang haka-haka because we have many partners who always visit our facilities and we can always assure the public that BuCor is doing its job in adhering to our laws and regulations,” Chaclag said.
He said BuCor is ready to face any investigation on the deaths of the inmates.
Meanwhile, Guevarra said it is up to Bantag if he will take a leave of absence while the NBI probe is ongoing.
“On the matter of DG Bantag’s taking a leave of absence while the NBI is conducting its probe, we leave it entirely to his sound discretion but the DOJ will ensure that the NBI’s investigation will remain free and unhampered,” Guevarra said.
He explained that under the BuCor law, the DOJ merely exercises supervision and not control over the bureau.
“The BuCor Director General is directly appointed by the President, and the latter’s trust is the measure is the measure of the Director General’s continuance in office,” he added.