Manila prison holds mass burial of 70 unclaimed bodies

Manila prison holds mass burial of 70 unclaimed bodies

Grim discovery follows suspension of former prison chief linked to murder and gross mismanagement

Inmates walk past caskets during a mass burial of 70 unclaimed bodies of prisoners at New Bilibid Prison cemetery in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila on Friday. (AFP Photo)
Inmates walk past caskets during a mass burial of 70 unclaimed bodies of prisoners at New Bilibid Prison cemetery in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila on Friday. (AFP Photo)

MANILA: The unclaimed bodies of 70 inmates at the Philippines’ largest and most congested prison were buried on Friday, several weeks after justice authorities discovered decomposing bodies.

The bodies, including one of a Japanese man convicted of drug smuggling, were interred in a mass burial. They were among more than 170 corpses found to have been kept at a morgue in Manila.

The discovery came after Gerald Bantag, the top Philippine prison official and head of the New Bilibid Prison, was suspended in October after being named the mastermind of the killing of Percival Mabasa, a journalist who was critical of him, the same month.

His suspension led investigators to uncover systematic mismanagement and absurd practices under Bantag’s watch, such as breeding horses and snakes. A huge pit was also dug in the prison compound in search of a World War II treasure, supposedly buried by Japanese soldiers — an allegation that Bantag denied, saying the pit was for a diving pool that was to be constructed.

Cecilia Villanueva, the jail’s health and welfare director, said most of the 170 prisoners had died of natural causes, although this has raised public doubts since a forensic examination was no longer possible due to the deteriorated state of the bodies.

Makeshift wooden coffins containing the remains of the 70 inmates were placed in apartment-style tombs after a funeral.

“This is the first time we are burying this (many),” she said.

Normally, corpses unclaimed by relatives or whose families could not afford to bury their dead on their own are kept for no longer than three months before jail authorities inter them, according to Villanueva.

But she pointed out that the “constraints” under Bantag’s watch led to the bodies piling up in the morgue, some for about a year.

In the case of the Japanese inmate, Reiichiro Hayashi, the only foreign prisoner buried in the mass funeral, his family sent word through the Japanese Embassy in Manila that they were “no longer interested” in claiming the body, Villanueva said.

Prison records showed that Hayashi, arrested in 2008, was sentenced to 12 to 14 years. He died on Nov 10 this year of an undisclosed illness.

The New Bilibid Prison has over 29,000 inmates, 400% more than its capacity, with only five doctors to look after them.

In November, the government’s Commission on Human Rights said that 1,166, or 2.4% of prisoners across the Philippines, died in 2021, marking “the highest number in the past 32 years”.


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