Philippines prison chief charged with murder of journalist

Manila, Philippines — Philippine authorities on Monday filed murder complaints against the top prisons official and an aide, accusing them of orchestrating the murder of a radio commentator in an elaborate crime they say showed the prison system of the country had been turned into a “criminal organization”.

The complaints were filed against suspended Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, prisons security official Ricardo Zulueta and other key suspects in the fatal Oct. 3 shooting of Percival Mabasa. The journalist had strongly criticized Bantag and other officials for allegations of corruption and other anomalies.

Mabasa, who used the broadcast name Percy Lapid, is among the latest media workers killed in a Southeast Asian country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists in the world.

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 biggest prison under Bantag’s control had been approached to seek out a gunman to kill Mabasa for a contract of 550,000 pesos ($9,300).

After the killing, however, the shooter, who was identified by police as Joel Escorial, walked away in fear after government officials offered a reward for his capture. He then publicly identified an inmate, Jun Villamor, who he said was instructed by detained gang leaders to call him and organize Mabasa’s murder. The gang leaders then killed Villamor inside the prison by suffocating him with a plastic bag allegedly on orders from Bantag and Zulueta, officials said.

“Bantag had a clear motive for committing the murders,” officials said in the statement.

Mabasa was shot for his critical revelations against the prison chief, and Villamor was killed by gang leaders to cover up after he was publicly identified by the gunman as the inmate who staged the killing behind bars, they said. declared.

Bantag denied any involvement in the murders. He and Zulueta were also charged with Villamor’s murder. No warrant has yet been issued for their arrest, officials said.

The investigation into the murders revealed “the unfortunate transformation of a pillar of justice – the correctional pillar – into a deep, large-scale and systematic criminal organization,” officials said in their statement.

β€œThis will be the cause of many reforms in government and the strengthening of current mechanisms to ensure that nothing of this nature will happen again,” they said.

As suspicions grew over Bantag’s involvement in the two murders, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered his indefinite suspension and replacement with a former military chief of staff, Gregorio Catapang Jr.

A recent search of the maximum-security prison complex under Bantag’s control revealed more than 7,000 cans of extra-strength beer, edged weapons, cellphones, laptops and suspected drugs in a discovery that deepened suspicions long-standing of prison anomalies involving officials and guards. , said Catapang.

“There are many crimes that we need to address,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla told a news conference. He cited the beer, drugs and other contraband smuggled into prison and the deaths of 18 incarcerated drug lords supposedly from coronavirus infection followed by their cremation within 75 days. .

Besides Bantag, Mabasa had also strongly criticized former President Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs. Duterte ended his turbulent six-year term in June.

Duterte appointed Bantag as head of the Bureau of Corrections in 2019 despite pending criminal complaints. Bantag had been charged in a 2016 clash that killed 10 inmates when he was director of another detention center. A court later cleared him.

Media watchdogs have condemned Mabasa’s killing, saying the attack underscores how deadly the Philippines remains for journalists.

Nearly 200 journalists have been killed in the country since 1986, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, according to the journalists’ union. 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 province of Maguindanao that horrified the world.

The massacre, linked to a political rivalry, demonstrated the dangers facing journalists in the Philippines, which has many unlicensed firearms, private armies controlled by powerful clans and weak law enforcement, especially in rural areas.

ABC News

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