JUSTICE Secretary Menardo Guevarra yesterday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to look into the deaths of several high-profile drug convicts imprisoned at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, who reportedly succumbed to COVID-19 complications.
But Guevarra said the investigation is only meant to “dispel any doubt on the death of (Jaybee) Sebastian and the eight others.”
Sources on Sunday said nine notorious drug lords, including Sebastian, died in recent months after they contracted COVID-19. All have reportedly been cremated.
A statement from the Department of Justice said Bureau of Corrections (BuCOr) director general Gerald Bantag “welcomes the independent investigation on the matter.”
Guevarra, along with DOJ undersecretary Deo Marco who is in charge of the correctional facilities, met with Bantag yesterday afternoon after news reports came out about Sebastian’s death. The BuCor is one of the agencies under the DOJ.
Aside from confirming Sebastian’s death, Bantag reportedly confirmed that 21 inmates have died of the virus and that five others remain in isolation at Site Harry, a quarantine site inside the NBP which serves as an isolation site for inmates who contracted the virus.
Justice undersecretary Markk Perete said the BuCor confirmed that Sebastian succumbed to the virus. “As to Jaybee Sebastian, yes, the BuCor has also confirmed that he was cremated,” Perete said.
As to the eight other drug convicts, including several Chinese nationals who were reported to have also died of COVID-19, Perete said they are awaiting the release of their death certificates.
“We await the submission of their death certificates to confirm their death and the cause thereof,” he said.
The BuCor has declined to confirm the deaths of Sebastian and the other eight drug lords, invoking the Data Privacy Act.
But Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro said the Data Privacy Act should not be used as a cloak for denying the public’s right to know.
In a statement, Liboro said: “High-profile inmates like (Jaybee) 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.”
During the meeting, Bantag also reportedly briefed Guevarra of the protocols followed by the BuCor in the event that an inmate dies of COVID-19, including the cremation of their remains within 12 hours.
Sebastian died on Saturday morning and his body was cremated on the night of the same day.
Sebastian was among the high-profile inmates detained at Building 14, a secured facility within the NBP’s maximum security compound. He was convicted in 2009. He testified in the 2016 hearings of the House of Representatives on the alleged involvement of detained opposition Sen. Leila de Lima in the illegal drugs trade when she was still the secretary of the justice department.
BuCor spokesman Col. Gabriel Chaclag said there were a total of 343 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the NBP as of July 20. Of the number, 311 have recovered from the illness. There are still 13 active cases.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday filed a resolution directing the appropriate Senate committee to conduct an inquiry, in aid of legislation, on the deaths of the nine inmates.
Sotto said he filed Senate Resolution 468 to get answers to questions surrounding the death of the nine convicts.
He noted that the nine dead inmates were all jailed at the NBP’s Building 14, a highly-secured facility inside the maximum security compound. The nine dead were also members of the so-called Bilibid 19 who ran illegal activities inside the NBP.
“Too many unanswered questions. Why no autopsies? Were the relatives informed? Why was the DOJ not informed? Etc, etc, etc,” Sotto said in a text message to reporters.
In the resolution, Sotto cited a July 20 interview of Bantag who confirmed there were inmates who died due to COVID-19.
“Based on their record, 21 PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) already died out of the 339 confirmed cases but the said number of deaths do(es) not pertain only to drug lords,” the resolution said.
“Based on the log of Panteon de Dasmarinas Public Cemetery in Dasmarinas, Cavite and according to its officer-in-charge Liezel Camaganacan, Jaybee Sebastian’s body was cremated by them on 18 July 2020,” the resolution added.
Information reaching Sotto said no autopsies were done on the bodies cremated at Panteon de Dasmarinas and the BuCor paid Dasmarinas City P15,000 but the staff members were not allowed to open the body bags anymore “so as long as there were death certificates and the proper papers, the bodies were cremated straight away.”
Sotto said he would also like to know if those cremated were really the nine high-profile inmates who died due to COVID-19 to allay fears that there was body switching.
“Due to unclear, inaccurate and unverified reports, speculations are now being made as to whether or not these NBP inmates actually died due to COVID-19 diseases,” the resolution added.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson is not so keen on conducting the probe.
“Unless there is very compelling reason to suspect any foul play – and as of now, there is none – personally I’d rather focus more on pressing matters than be distracted by the deaths of drug convicts who had shown no remorse at all by continuing their drug operations even in the confines of the highly-secured facility of the New Bilibid Prison,” Lacson said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon, a former justice secretary, decried the BuCor’s use of the Data Privacy Act to hide the identities of the convicts.
“In fact, upon any person’s death, there is a requirement to execute a death certificate which is a public document. Disclosing information about a prisoner’s death is not a protected information under the Data Privacy Law. The fact that a person is dead is not contemplated by the law,” Drilon said in a statement.
Drilon said Section 3 (l) of RA 10173 or the Data Privacy Act of 2012, enumerates sensitive personal information which must not be divulged. These are “an individual’s race, ethnic origin, marital status, age, color, and religious, philosophical or political affiliations”, “an individual’s health, education, genetic or sexual life of a person, or to any proceeding for any offense committed or alleged to have been committed by such person, the disposal of such proceedings, or the sentence of any court in such proceedings”, “social security numbers, previous or current health records, licenses or its denials, suspension or revocation, and tax returns; and “specifically established by an executive order or an act of Congress to be kept classified”.
“Ang hinihingi lang po natin ay impormasyon kung sino ang mga patay (What we are asking for is the information who actually died). That is factual,” he said, adding: “Jurisprudence even provides that ‘we are satisfied that society would insist that the prisoner’s expectation of privacy always yield to what must be considered a paramount interest in institutional security. We believe that it is accepted by our society that ‘[l]oss of freedom of choice and privacy are inherent incidents of confinement.’”
With this, Drilon said one would suspect that the BuCor is hiding something from the public.
“Ano bang tinatago ng BuCor? (What is the BuCor hiding?) Moreover, transparency is an effective mechanism to guard against abuses such as fake or simulated deaths,” Drilon said.
Drilon said that to allow such is akin to giving BuCor a license as to who to declare dead and alive in one of the world’s most crowded correctional facilities.
“It is dangerous and it is prone to different kinds of abuses. I am afraid it can be used to make prisoners disappear, cover up extra-judicial killings, and even to fake death.
Disclosing information about prison deaths will not do any harm. Transparency is an effective mechanism to guard against abuses such as fake or simulated deaths,” he added.
At the House, ACT-CIS Rep. Nina Taduran said he smells something fishy about the reported death from COVID-19 of the high-profile drug inmates because their deaths makes it appear that the virus can choose who will be infected.
Taduran said a full medical report of Sebastian’s case from the first day of his alleged infection should be made public along with those of other fatalities.
The lawmaker, who is an assistant majority leader, also called for a postmortem testing of the deceased inmates to find out who really died of the virus.
“The incident raises suspicion. Why is it that the virus seems to be so good in choosing who will be infected?” Taduran said. “Did the NBP notify the DOH of Sebastian’s condition prior to his demise?”
Taduran said an autopsy has to be done to Sebastian, an inmate who was a witness in the alleged illegal drug trade inside the NBP. – With Noel Talacay, Raymond Africa and Wendell Vigilia