DEATHS UNDER DARK CLOUDS OF DOUBT
The reported deaths of high-profile inmates at the National Bilibid Prison (NBP) due to alleged Covid-19 infection are being regarded under a dark cloud of doubt if this is in any way connected with the government’s all-out campaign against illegal drugs.
Having to deal with conspiracy theories, Bureau of Corrections officials showed the pictures of the remains of a high profile prisoner who testified against Sen. Leila de Lima on her alleged links with drug lords inside the prison facility. While the death certificate indicated that the inmate died of Covid-19-triggered causes, it is being demanded that other proofs of death such as closed circuit television camera (CCTV) footage should be presented to the Department of Justice, or if the law allows, made public on viewers’ discretion.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines was right in arguing that Director General Gerald Batnag of the BuCor cannot use the Data Privacy Act as cloak to deny the public’s right to know what really transpired. True enough, the Data Privacy Act should not be used by public officials to get away with their accountability nor thwart the constitutional rights to information on matters of public concern.
The claim of the deaths due to Covid-19 of high-profile inmates incarcerated due to their involvement in the illegal drug trade and other crime are what make the issue a matter of public concern, as no other than the President has claimed that illegal drugs remain one of the top concerns of his administration even in this time of pandemic.
The way BuCor officials are running the show, Filipinos, especially those who catapulted President Duterte into power owing to his campaign promise to wipe out the drug menace in the country, feel that there is a lack of transparency on the disclosure of the supposed deaths of high-profile inmates.
Many quarters suspect that there may have been body switching making it appear that the high-profile inmates who supposedly died of the Covid-19 infection may have actually been set free. In which case, this becomes a grave injustice for the victims, law enforcers, and lawyers who invested time, effort and resources, even risking their security, to put criminals in jail.
There is also grave injustice to millions of Filipinos, who still have high hopes that this administration will bring reforms in the country’s main penitentiary and lasting solutions to the drug menace.
Other quarters surmise a cover-up on the deaths of these high profile prisoners, as BuCor officials, as a matter of health protocols, should have referred the sick inmates to the appropriate hospitals supervised by the Department of Health and should have properly informed the Department of Justice about the situation of the inmates once suspected of having been infected with the virus, not two days after their supposed deaths.
By some indications, BuCor officials have broken protocols in their management of ailing prisoners in this time of pandemic, as news of the inmates’ deaths surprised even the DOJ hierarchy, which has supervision over the NBP.
Malacañang must take this matter seriously, as one or two of those who allegedly died of the Covid-19 were among those running the illegal drug trade in the country even while in prison, if only to sustain its war on illegal drugs and their protectors.
More importantly, the reported death of prisoners due to Covid-19 warrants an urgent call for action by the government to protect the health of all prisoners nationwide, especially those currently incarcerated in overcrowded jail facilities. The basic right of every prisoner to be protected from health risks such as the Covid-19 contagion should be upheld while under the custody of the state.
We share the view of sociologists who tell us that the state of our prison system reflects the state of our government and of our society.
Meanwhile, Filipinos hope that any future inquiry in aid of legislation to be conducted either by the Senate or Congress will clear all too many unanswered questions on the real story behind the deaths of high-profile inmates to maintain high public trust in our country’s criminal justice system.