Prison boss in Philippines denies digging escape tunnel for inmates, says hole was for scuba diving

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New Bilibid Prison.
New Bilibid Prison.
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
  • A prison boss in the Philippines has denied that a huge tunnel dug beside his house was to assist prisoners in escaping. 
  • Gerald Bantag has instead insisted that the tunnel was for scuba diving.
  • Bantag resided on the sprawling prison premises before being suspended. 

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 for scuba diving.

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

Police have accused Bantag of ordering the murder of prominent radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, who was shot dead outside his home in the capital last month.

He has denied involvement in the killing.

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 at his home.

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Bantag said he is a scuba diver and wanted to create the "deepest swimming pool in Manila", according to an interview broadcasted earlier this month.

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

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 Bantag's former home.

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

Remulla said:

That was supposed to be a treasure hunt... I told him to stop it.

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

Bantag also allegedly kept horses which he and detainees used to ride, said 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 told AFP on Wednesday.

Del Rosario said:

It's the first time that a director owns horses. I don't know the reason.

Del Rosario said the prisons authority had experienced "many controversies in the past".

He insisted "not all of us are corrupt".

"The majority of the employees of the Bureau of Corrections are very, very good," he said.

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