Senate to probe sudden deaths of 9 high-profile inmates

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 22) - The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is planning to conduct an inquiry next week on the sudden deaths of several high-profile inmates in the New Bilibid Prison allegedly due to COVID-19, committee chairperson Richard Gordon said.

Gordon said Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Director General Gerald Bantag will be invited to the Senate, adding that all resource persons will be required to physically attend the televised hearing despite the pandemic.

“We can compel them, I am willing to conduct a hearing na nasa harap ko sila (in front of me)," Gordon said. "Magma-mask lang ako (I will just wear a mask), make sure there is proper ventilation, proper distancing, and the sergeant-at-arms will not allow them to move around. We will be in control. It will be shown on TV."

High-profile drug convict Jaybee Sebastian and eight other inmates reportedly died of COVID-19 while inside the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City.

Gordon reiterated that Bantag may be removed from his post for failing to report to the Health and Justice departments the deaths of Sebastian and nine others.

BuCor said the nine remains were immediately cremated based on COVID-19 health protocols.

“Kahit namatay talaga iyon, pero di niya ni-report, pwede sya sibakin,” said Gordon. “The very fact that this situation was allowed to happen, na hindi nagreport, that indicates that nangyayari talaga.”

[Translation: Even though he really died, but he did not report it, he can be kicked out from his post. The very fact that this situation was allowed to happen, that they did not report this, that indicates that it really happened.]

“If I were him I will submit a report and then go on a temporary leave," the senator added. "The President is their boss. they stay at the pleasure of the President. "Malaking kasalanan talaga yan (That’s a grave mistake)."

Gordon said that President Rodrigo Duterte could replace him with someone more knowledgeable in handling the prison

Meanwhile, BuCor Spokesperson Gabby Chaclag said that Bantag will most likely attend the inquiry.

"Pag meron namang invitation (If there is an invitation), we cannot turn it down, as long as it’s a legitimate inquiry,” said Chaclag.

He added that Bantag cannot just take a break amid the issue despite suggestions for him to take a leave of absence.

“Hindi naman madali mag-vacate ng isang very sensitive position,” Chaclag said. “Rest assured na ginagawa pa rin niya ang kanyang tungkulin.”

[Translation: It’s not that easy to vacate a very sensitive postion. Rest assured that he is still doing his duty.]

The BuCor also released to the media on Wednesday the death certificates of the said high-profile inmates.

Despite this, Gordon said he was still suspicious about their deaths.

“Nung iniimbestigahan namin yung GCTA (Good Conduct Time Allowance), may mga doktor na tumatanggap [ng pera] para makalabas yung mga preso […] So we cannot trust the system,” he told CNN Philippines’ News Night on Wednesday.

[Translation: When we were investigating the GCTA, we found out that there were doctors who are receiving money in order to release prisoners […] So we cannot trust the system.]

For his part, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra already asked the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation on the supposed deaths.

CNN Philippines' correspondent Joyce Ilas and mult-platform news writer Vince Ferreras contributed to this report