Senate President Tito Sotto (Photo courtesy by GMA News)

MANILA – Senate President Tito Sotto said Wednesday the death and manner of cremation of high-profile inmates amid the pandemic “raised too many unanswered questions.”

And this is the reason why lawmakers are calling for an inquiry over the deaths of at least nine (9) high-profile inmates including drug-trafficker Jaybee Sebastian who pinned Senator Leila de Lima down into receiving millions of drug money during an election campaign.

SP Sotto III is one of the lawmakers who are calling for inquiry, saying the deaths and cremation of nine high profile inmates “raised too many unanswered questions.”

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra ordered the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to exert “greater efforts” to notify the families of the dead inmates prior to cremation.

Guevarra made the directive after lawmakers pushed for the investigation on the reported deaths of nine high-profile inmates, including drug trafficker Jaybee Sebastian, at the highly secured Building 14 of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City due to coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

“For now, we have instructed the Bucor to ensure the presence of a DOH (Department of Health) representative during the conduct of swab tests within their facilities and to exert greater efforts to immediately notify the members of deceased inmates’ families prior to cremation,” Guevarra said.

Guevarra has also ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the alleged deaths of Sebastian and eight other nine high profile inmates, mostly convicted drug lords.

Meanwhile, Guevarra said the death of Sebastian will not have a significant impact on the government’s prosecution of the criminal cases against detained Senator Leila De Lima.

“Sebastian is only one in an array of witnesses against Senator De Lima. His loss does not affect in any significant manner the overall strategy of the prosecution in the pending criminal cases,” Guevarra said.

Sebastian, a convicted kidnapper and carnapper, was a witness and co-accused in one of the drug charges filed against de Lima before the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC).

He previously tagged de Lima as protector of the drug trade in the NBP during her term as Justice Secretary.

Guevarra said nearly 500 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) have died during the first half of the year.

“As per BuCor data, a total of 476 PDLs died from Covid and non-Covid causes during the period January to July 19, 2020,” he said.

Jails managed by the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor) have more than 36,900 prisoners in seven penal colonies, while about 21,000 inmates are detained at the NBP.

There are 343 Covid-19 cases in Bucor facilities as of July 15, according to DOJ. (PNA)