High-profile convicts linked to scandal-hit Duterte arch-foe killed, hurt in prison riot

Filipino Senator Leila De Lima speaking during a press conference at the Philippine Senate in Pasay City, south of Manila.
Filipino Senator Leila De Lima speaking during a press conference at the Philippine Senate in Pasay City, south of Manila.PHOTO: EPA

MANILA - A drug kingpin linked to a bribery scandal involving an arch-foe of President Rodrigo Duterte was killed while three others were injured in a stabbing melee on Wednesday (Sept 28) morning at the national prison.

Justice Minister Vitaliano Aguirre said the prison riot stemmed from a petty quarrel.

But those involved were top-tier inmates named in an ongoing congressional inquiry into allegations that Senator Leila de Lima received millions worth of drug money when she was justice minister under former president Benigno Aquino from 2010 to 2015.

On Tuesday (Sept 27), Ms de Lima said most of the evidence presented against her at the House of Representatives, including testimonies of inmates she allegedly coddled and bank records proving the payoffs, were “fake and cosmetics only… Nothing’s authentic”.

Ms de Lima has accused Mr Duterte of orchestrating the House inquiry to derail her own investigations into more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings that have blighted the President’s anti-crime drive.

The feud between Ms de Lima and Mr Duterte have lately degenerated into lewd personal attacks. Mr Duterte, 71, has derided Ms de Lima, 57, as “ugly” and “immoral” for having an affair with her driver. Ms de Lima has called Mr Duterte “the lowest and vilest man in the country”.

Mr Aguirre, the Justice Minister, identified the convict killed as Tony Co, one of 19 “high-profile inmates” said to be running a drugs distribution hub from inside the national penitentiary.

Among those rushed to a hospital was Jaybee Sebastian, a gang leader at the penitentiary accused of giving millions worth of drug payoffs to Ms de Lima.

Another kingpin, Peter Co, has a “50-50” chance of survival, said Mr Aguirre.  The fourth inmate hurt in the attack was identified as Vicente Sy.

Mr Aguirre said the riot happened at around 7.30am, supposedly following a quarrel among inmates taking drugs.

Sebastian was tagged by his fellow convicts during a congressional inquiry as the cell block leader who paid 100,000 pesos (S$2,800) a week to fund Ms de Lima’s Senate run, in exchange for luxuries that allowed him to run a drug operation from inside the penitentiary.

A former Bureau of Corrections chief, meanwhile, said he handed some 10 million pesos to Ms de Lima’s driver on two occasions.

Tony Co, Peter Co and Sy were part of the “Bilibid 19” inmates who were moved out of the penitentiary’s maximum security compound in 2014, after they were discovered to be enjoying luxury privileges as jacuzzis, flat-screen TVs, stripper bars, sex toys, mobile phones, laptops, and even a recording studio.

They were all later transferred out of the maximum security compound to Building 14, where they were given more austere quarters.

Ms de Lima, then the justice minister, ordered the raids that unearthed these activities.

But Sebastian, a convicted car thief and drug trafficker, was spared, prompting allegations he had connived with Ms de Lima, so he could remove his rivals at the penitentiary.

Ms de Lima revealed last week that Sebastian was a “government asset”, but that she later had him transferred to Building 14 as well “because it became an issue”.

Sebastian was tagged by several inmates as Ms de Lima’s biggest payola collector at the penitentiary, but Mr Aguirre had declined to present him as a witness to lawmakers.

Mr Aguirre said Sebastian agreed to testify only on corruption involving prison officials, not on Ms de Lima’s supposed drug payoffs.

Ms de Lima disclosed earlier that she had received reports inmates at the national penitentiary were being coerced, either with promises of lax treatment or “psychological torture”, to testify against her.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, an ally of Mr Dutete, said Wednesday’s prison riot might have been meant to silence Sebastian, who he believed was ready to testify against Ms de Lima.