The Philippine Senate has called for an investigation into the reported deaths of at least nine high-profile prison inmates, including drug lords, amid claims their deaths — allegedly due to coronavirus — were faked so they could escape custody, the Philippine Star reported on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the Philippine Bureau of Corrections told the Philippines’ GMA News on Monday that 19 inmates of the maximum-security New Bilibid Prison (NBP) had recently been reported dead from coronavirus. Several of the inmates reported dead were leaders of drug cartels, including the prison’s top drug lord, Jaybee Sebastian, 40, a star witness against detained Sen. Leila De Lima.
“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 [Chinese coronavirus],” Philippine Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in a resolution filed on Monday requesting an inquiry into the deaths.
Sotto “cited reports that no autopsies were conducted on the bodies, and these were cremated without being removed from body bags,” the Philippine Star reported.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths have caused allegations of foul play to circulate on Philippine social media in recent days. The NBP has previously been the subject of “numerous scandals in which powerful prisoners, with the help of corrupt officials, continue to run crime syndicates from jail,” the South China Morning Post noted on Monday.
On Sunday, CNN Philippines claimed to have obtained Sebastian’s death certificate which, it said, “showed that the New Bilibid Prison inmate suffered acute myocardial infarction or heart attack, with the viral disease [Chinese coronavirus] listed as a significant condition contributing to his death.” The news outlet added that Sebastian’s remains were cremated “immediately” on the same day that he died.
A convicted drug lord and kidnapper, Sebastian testified in a 2016 congressional hearing that “as a high-profile prisoner at New Bilibid he had been asked to give at least 70 million pesos [about $1.4 million] to De Lima — who was the justice secretary at the time — to help fund her campaign to run for the senate,” the SCMP noted.
De Lima won the 2016 election, but a court ordered her arrest in 2017 and she has been jailed without bail since then as her trial plays out. De Lima has repeatedly denied the allegations that her senate election was funded by drug cartels.