The head of prisons in the Philippines is accused of murdering a journalist
MANILA, Philippines — Philippine authorities on Monday filed murder charges against a top prison official and his aide, accusing them of masterminding the killing of a radio commentator, which they said showed the country’s prison system had turned into a “criminal organization”.
The complaints were filed against Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, who has been suspended, prison security officer Ricardo Zulueta and other key suspects in the Oct. 3 fatal shooting of Percival Mabasa. The journalist had strongly criticized Bantag and other officials for alleged corruption and other anomalies.
Mabasa, who used the broadcast name Percy Lapid, is among the latest media workers to be killed in a Southeast Asian country considered one of the world’s most dangerous for journalists.
A joint statement read at a press conference by senior justice, interior and police officials said three gang leaders locked up in the country’s largest prison under Bantag’s control were tapped to find a gunman to kill Mabasa on a 550,000 peso ($9,300) contract. :
After the killing, however, the gunman, identified by police as Joel Escorial, surrendered out of fear after government officials raised a reward for his capture. He then publicly identified an inmate, June Villamor, who he said was instructed by the arrested gang leaders to call him and arrange for Mabasa’s murder. Gang leaders later killed Villamor inside the prison by suffocating him with a plastic bag, allegedly on the orders of Bantag and Zulueta, officials said.
“The prison had a clear motive to carry out the killings,” officials said in a statement.
Mabasa was shot for his critical revelations against the prisons chief, and Villamor was killed by gang bosses as a cover-up after he was publicly identified as the inmate behind bars who masterminded the murder.
Bantag has denied any involvement in the murders. He and Zulueta were also charged with Villamor’s murder. No arrest warrants have yet been issued for them, officials said.
The investigation into the killings revealed the “unfortunate transformation of a pillar of justice, a pillar of corrections, into a deep, wide-ranging and organized criminal organization,” officials said in a statement.
“It will be a reason for many reforms in the government and strengthening of existing mechanisms to ensure that nothing of this nature will happen again,” they said.
As suspicions grew about Bantag’s involvement in the two murders, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered him suspended indefinitely and replaced by former military chief of staff Gregorio Catapang Jr.
A recent search of the high-security prison complex under Bangat’s control turned up more than 7,000 cans of extreme beer, edged weapons, cellphones, laptops and suspected drugs, deepening long-standing suspicions of prison anomalies involving officials and guards. , Katapang said.
“There are many crimes that we have to look at,” Justice Minister Jesus Crispi Remulla told a news conference. He cited beer, drugs and other contraband being smuggled into the prison and the deaths of 18 detained drug lords, believed to be due to coronavirus infection, followed by their cremation within 75 days.
Aside from Bantag, Mabasa also strongly criticized former President Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs. Duterte ended his tumultuous six-year tenure in June.
Duterte appointed Bantag to head the Bureau of Corrections in 2019 despite pending criminal complaints. Bantag was charged in connection with a 2016 brawl that killed 10 inmates while he was a guard at another detention facility. The court later acquitted him.
Media observers condemned Mabasa’s killing, saying the attack underscored how deadly the Philippines remains for journalists.
According to the journalists’ union, since 1986, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, about 200 journalists have been killed in the country. The group led a protest on Tuesday night and called on the government to do more to stop the killings.
In 2009, members of a powerful political clan and their associates killed 58 people, including 32 media workers, in an execution-style attack in the southern state of Maguindanao that horrified the world.
The mass killing, linked to political rivalries, highlighted the dangers journalists face in the Philippines, where there are many illegal weapons, private armies controlled by powerful clans and weak law enforcement, especially in rural areas.
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