Will death preempt justice?

Will death preempt justice?

/ 05:15 AM March 22, 2024

News reports on the death Friday last week of Jail Senior Supt. Ricardo Zulueta, one of two principal suspects in the 2022 killing of broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa, was greeted with incredulity by the general public used to police cover-up of suspicious deaths among felons.

Lapid, a hard-hitting radio broadcaster and online columnist, was shot dead by two suspects onboard a motorcycle on Oct. 3, 2022, in Las Piñas City. Zulueta and his boss, former Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, are among the 17 individuals indicted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in March 2023 for Lapid’s murder.

Shortly after the court’s decision, Bantag and Zulueta went into hiding. Bantag remains at large.


On Monday, the Philippine National Police ruled out foul play in Zulueta’s death, citing his death certificate which says that the former prison official died of cerebrovascular disease intracranial hemorrhage or bleeding in the head. Police said it was in fact Zulueta’s brother who had rushed him to a hospital in Dinalupihan, Bataan, where he died.


Independent autopsy

Before this official announcement, Lapid’s family had asked for an independent autopsy to determine how he had died. And who can blame them? With the news coming from the police no less, there’s a lot of room for skepticism. The PNP’s record on custodial care has been spotty at best, with the PNP-Internal Affairs Service (IAS) itself releasing a report in 2019, which indicates that nearly 500 crime suspects had died in police custody since former President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. IAS inspector general Alfegar Triambulo said 119 commissioned and 772 noncommissioned officers, including police chiefs in towns and cities, are under probe for the prisoners’ deaths.

While the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has acknowledged that deplorable prison conditions may have led to most of the deaths, it also warned the police on the excessive use of force against persons deprived of liberty.

In September 2020, the CHR urged the government to decisively address the deaths of siblings Ricardo and Melodia Parojinog while in government custody for alleged involvement in the drug trade. The PNP cited “health complications” for their death despite the absence of autopsy reports.

Plastic bag suffocation

Included in the long list of these dubious deaths is that of Jun Villamor, an inmate alleged to have hired the killers in the Lapid shooting, who was found strangled to death at the New Bilibid Prison in October 2023. An autopsy by independent forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun found that Villamor’s remains had a “history of asphyxia by plastic bag suffocation.”

While the understandable mistrust of the police may have been misplaced in the Zulueta case, given the official report of no foul play, the PNP still has a lot to answer for in the Lapid killing. The one question hounding it since the 2022 incident is why it’s taken too long to collar main mastermind Bantag, given that he was able to give two separate interviews in September 2023 to several vloggers who collectively call themselves “Banatero Brothers.” Despite threatening to haul the vloggers to jail for “obstruction of justice,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has so far failed to do so. What gives? An arrest order would have been a strong bargaining chip to compel the vloggers to help trace Bantag’s whereabouts.

Unexplained delay

And why the inordinate delays in the trial despite the indictment against Bantag and Zulueta being handed down on March 9, 2023, or a full year since? Note that it is the government prosecutors who are behind the repeated postponements of the court hearings, when they should have been pushing for a speedy trial and resolution of the case:


“I was informed by the Las Piñas Clerk of Court that the hearing for the @lapidfire vs Gerald Bantag, et al set on March 18, 2024 has been postponed AGAIN upon the request of the State Prosecutors,” Lapid’s brother, Roy Mabasa said on X (formerly Twitter). Shouldn’t a DOJ probe of its prosecutors be in order for this unexplained delay?

P3-million reward

With the charges archived pending the principal suspects’ arrest, the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) have offered a total of P3 million reward for information that could lead to their apprehension, while a Muntinlupa court has issued a hold departure order in April last year.

Apparently, such moves are not enough. With Bantag still at large and Zulueta dead, the DOJ must demonstrate renewed determination to serve justice in Lapid’s case before death and unseemly circumstances preempt it. Remulla’s earlier instructions to the NBI prior to the issuance of Zulueta’s official death certificate should apply to himself as well: “Exert greater efforts, act swiftly, delve deep, and uncover the truth by all means possible. This calls for action the soonest possible time,” Remulla said.

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No better words to express the urgency of the case. Now to put those words into action.

TAGS: death, justice, Police

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