MANILA – Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Thursday said it will be up to Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director General Gerald Bantag whether or not to go on leave following the controversy over the deaths of high-profile persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City.
In a statement, Guevarra said under the BuCor law, the DOJ only exercises supervision, not control, over the bureau.
"The BuCor Director General (DG) is appointed directly by the President, and the latter's trust is the measure of the director general's continuance in office. On the matter of DG Bantag's taking a leave of absence while the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) is conducting its probe, we leave it entirely to Bantag's sound discretion. But the DOJ will ensure that the NBI's investigation will remain free and unhampered," he added.
Guevarra met with Bantag earlier this week and asked him to exert “greater efforts” to notify the families of the dead inmates prior to cremation after lawmakers pushed for the investigation on the reported deaths of nine high-profile inmates, including Jaybee Sebastian, at the highly-secured Building 14 of the NBP due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
The BuCor has shown to the media photos of the cadavers of Sebastian and the other inmates in body bags supposedly prior to their cremation.
Guevarra has ordered the NBI to look into the alleged deaths of Sebastian and eight other nine high profile inmates, mostly convicted drug lords.
Guevarra said the death of Sebastian will not have a significant impact on the government's prosecution of the criminal cases against detained Senator Leila de Lima.
"Sebastian is only one in an array of witnesses against Senator de Lima. His loss does not affect in any significant manner the overall strategy of the prosecution in the pending criminal cases," Guevarra said.
Sebastian, a convicted kidnapper and car thief, was a witness and co-accused in one of the drug charges filed against de Lima before the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC). He previously tagged de Lima as protector of the drug trade at the NBP during her term as Justice Secretary.
Guevarra said as per BuCor data, a total of 476 PDLs died from Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 causes from January to July 19, 2020.
Jails managed by the BuCor have more than 36,900 prisoners in seven penal colonies while about 21,000 inmates are detained at the NBP.
Latest data from the DOJ showed there are 343 Covid-19 cases in BuCor facilities as of July 15. (PNA)