Philippine prisons chief denies digging escape tunnel for inmates

A large pit near the official quarters of the Philippines' prisons chief Gerald Bantag in suburban Manila. PHOTO: AFP
Horses and fighting cocks were among several animals found on the prison grounds. PHOTO: AFP
Horses and fighting cocks were among several animals found on the prison grounds. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - A Philippine corrections chief accused of ordering the killing of a journalist has claimed that a huge pit dug beside his home in a Manila prison complex was not an escape tunnel for inmates but a pool for scuba diving.

Estimated to be 60m deep and 40m wide, the gaping hole was found at the official residence of Mr Gerald Bantag after he was suspended as director-general of the Bureau of Corrections.

Police have accused Mr Bantag of ordering the murder of prominent radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, who was shot dead outside his home in the capital Manila last month. He has denied involvement in the killing.

Mr Bantag, who remains free while prosecutors decide if there is enough evidence to charge him, has admitted to local media that he ordered the excavation.

He said he is a scuba diver and wanted to create the “deepest swimming pool in Manila”, according to an interview aired earlier in November.

However, another swimming pool measuring about 25m long had already been built just several metres from the pit.

Mr Bantag denied the hole was designed to be an escape tunnel for inmates locked up inside the overcrowded New Bilibid Prison, whose sprawling grounds contain Mr Bantag’s former home.

Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla said last week that Mr Bantag had told him he was searching for the fabled treasure stolen from around South-east Asia by Japanese forces in World War II, rumoured to be buried in the Philippines.

“That was supposed to be a treasure hunt... I told him to stop it,” Mr Remulla said.

Mr Bantag was appointed prisons chief in September 2019 by then President Rodrigo Duterte.

When AFP visited Mr Bantag’s former quarters on Wednesday, an armed security guard wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a marijuana plant leaf was part of a casually dressed team guarding the premises.

The guards said a yellow python, apparently a pet, was still slithering around in the basement of the two-storey house located on the 400ha prison grounds.

Mr Bantag also allegedly kept horses that he and detainees used to ride, said Mr Sonny Del Rosario, chief of the Bureau of Corrections public information office.

That was “obviously not” part of the official rehabilitation programme for inmates, he said on Wednesday.

“It’s the first time that a director owns horses. I don’t know the reason,” Mr Del Rosario said.

There were fighting cocks found on the prison grounds – also forbidden – but Mr Del Rosario said they belonged to another corrections officer, not Mr Bantag.

Mr Del Rosario said the prisons authority had experienced “many controversies in the past” and staff would carry on. He insisted that “not all of us are corrupt”.

He added: “The majority of the employees of the Bureau of Corrections are very, very good.” AFP

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