Tunnel dug for ‘scuba diving’

Finding evidence: A corrections officer taking photos of the pit near the prisons chief quarters in Manila. — AFP

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 gaping 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.

Bantag said he is a scuba diver and wanted to create the “deepest swimming pool in Manila”, according to an interview broadcast 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 South-East Asia by Japanese forces in World War II and rumoured to be buried in the Philippines.

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

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

When AFP visited 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.

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

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 rehabilitation programme for inmates, he said on Wednesday.

“It’s the first time that a director owns horses.

“I don’t know the reason,” Del Rosario said. — AFP

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