De Lima’s 3rd case: Dead men tell no tales

Already acquitted twice, how will the third case against Leila de Lima prosper?

In the third case, docketed as Case Number 17-167 in the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court 256 under Judge Romeo Buenaventura, De Lima is charged for drugs conspiracy with then Bureau of Corrections Director Franklin Bucayu in raising funds for her senate candidacy in 2016. It was also in this court that De Lima petitioned for her release on bail.

For this case, the Rodrigo Duterte government’s star witness was the Bilibid national penitentiary convict Jaybee Sebastian.

First, a note about Sebastian. He was detained in 2001 for kidnapping and carnapping. In Bilibid, he was said to have led the prison gang Presidio that was involved in the illegal drugs trade. Its rival gang inside Bilibid was Carcel, said to have been led by convict Herbert Colanggo.

Because it is becoming crystal clearer now that the De Lima cases appear to have been hatched as charades by a vindictive Duterte, it is important to know what this third case is all about. And for that, we go by the script provided by Duterte’s secretary of justice Vitaliano Aguirre who was the first to bare this to the public.

The Aguirre storyline went this way: The convict Jaybee Sebastian had directed a 3-year fund-raising campaign for the May 2016 senatorial candidacy of De Lima, in exchange for Sebastian’s drug operations inside Bilibid, during her term as justice secretary under the Benigno Aquino III presidency.

In fact, the groundwork for Sebastian’s testimony was laid as early as October 2016. At a House of Representatives hearing on the drugs trade inside Bilibid, congressmen were already building up the storyline against De Lima.

Compostela Valley Rep.Ruwel Peter Gonzaga asked Sebastian: “Would you consider De Lima as a protector or an accomplice in the illegal drugs trade?”

Sebastian: “Mas okey na protector (Better to consider her as protector). Alam niya [De Lima] na galing sa drugs ang pinagkukunan namin ng pera. Wala naman kaming ibang pagkukunan ng pera” (She knows that our source of money is drugs. We do not have any other source of money).

Sarangani Rep. Rogelio Pacquiao asked Sebastian the same question. Sebastian replied: “Si Secretary De Lima talaga lahat ang may kasalanan” (It is Secretary De Lima who is really to blame for everything).

Sebastian also said he gave a total of P10 million drug money to De Lima. The House accorded him immunity for his testimony. He also said he met with De Lima “seven to eight times,” but later changed it to “between eight and twelve times.”

The House behaved as an accomplice in the trial by publicity against De Lima. In exchange for what? That is a rhetorical question in the time of Duterte.

But De Lima’s sources at Bilibid had a different version. She was reportedly told that Sebastian was being “pushed to the wall” by certain higher authorities. Information had also leaked that Sebastian’s wife had pleaded with him to just follow whatever the higher authorities had asked him to do. The tenor of these stories was ugly; that there was a conspiracy from top government to spin stories against De Lima. It was a prelude to the filing of cases against her. In the meantime, troll narratives had begun portraying her as an “immoral woman.” The conspiracy was successful.

On July 18, 2020, Jaybee Sebastian died of Covid. The New Bilibid Prison shared to media the death certificate, saying he died of acute myocardial infarction. NBP said death took place at the Bilibid Hospital and his remains were cremated on the same day at Panteon de Dasmariñas in Cavite.

Did Sebastian really die of Covid? Two years after his death, on July 2022, the National Bureau of Investigation had to issue a statement, that he was not murdered, and that he was admitted to Site Harry, an area within the prison compound designated as Covid quarantine facility. NBI also said he suffered from “diarrhea, cough, muscle pain, fatigue and headache.”

Only this December 2022, BuCor acting director Gregorio Catapang Jr. launched an investigation. The findings were astonishing. Sebastian neither died at Site Harry nor at Bilibid Hospital as claimed, but in an empty campus beside Bilibid. This was the University of Perpetual Help extension school.

In fact, Sebastian’s widow had requested for an independent autopsy. The request was ignored. The smoking gun – a postmortem reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test was performed on the same day he died. He was negative for Covid 19. There was more. Nine other high profile inmates were said to have died of “Covid” from May to June 2020. Catapang said an inmate, Rodel Tiaga, came forward saying he witnessed how a fellow inmate, Eugene Chua, a convicted drug lord, was killed by plastic bag suffocation. Tiaga was an orderly at Site Harry.

Who was the BuCor director at the time of Sebastian’s murder? It was Gerald Bantag. Remember what Bong Go said in 2019 when Duterte was looking for a new BuCor director? “Basta killer,” he said.

The NBI would later recant its defense of Sebastian’s death. At the time of the mysterious deaths, police from the National Capital Region Police Office were assigned to man Bilibid. Surprised? NBI said there was “criminal intent” in the deaths, including that of Sebastian. “There was a system or a method for there to be Covid or make it appear that someone died of Covid to cover up the alleged murder.”

Sebastian wasn’t the first. Another high profile inmate, convicted druglord Vicente Sy, had also testified at the House hearings against De Lima. Sy said he met and gave drug money to her. Like other witnesses against De Lima, Sy later recanted and said he never gave money to her. Like Sebastian’s, he died at the end of July 2021 of – you guessed it right – cardiac arrest. Justice system at work?

Dead men tell no tales, but only if there is no incriminating pattern of inconsistent records from Bilibid, the police and Bilibid Hospital. The tales indicate that some people truly need to be hailed to the International Criminal Court. That should include Vitaliano Aguirre and the now fugitive from law Gerald Bantag.

But who masterminded the vilification fiesta against Leila de Lima? Rhetorical question.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.