MANILA: The early release of hundreds of convicted rapists, murderers and drug criminals has acutely embarrassed Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, with his justice minister saying they were ineligible to be freed because of the severity of their crimes.
About 1,700 felons serving life sentences have quietly walked free under a good behaviour programme in the three years since Duterte swept to power, promising to wage a national war on corruption, drugs and crime.
Among those freed are 745 convicted rapists, 748 murderers and 156 drug criminals, according to an internal prisons document, obtained by Reuters, that names all of the prisoners guilty of crimes categorised as "heinous".
They included Josman Aznar, Ariel Balansag and Alberto Cano, three of six men sentenced to death in 2004 for the 1997 kidnap, rape and murder of two sisters in one of the country's most high-profile cases. Their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.
Duterte, a former prosecutor and crime busting mayor counts among his many nicknames "Duterte Harry" and "The Punisher" - references to a Clint Eastwood movie and the title of a Time magazine article that featured him - and he was furious when critics alleged that a corrections bureau run by his appointees was letting dangerous criminals pay their way out of prison.
The bureau denies the allegations of graft. One of its former chiefs has said that he did not know the justice minister's approval was needed for the prisoners to be released.
Duterte last week demanded that the 1,700 convicts surrender, offering bounties of 1 million pesos (US$19,200) for each if they failed to comply. As of Wednesday (Sep 11), 185 had turned themselves in.
House minority leader Edcel Lagman called it a "massive jailbreak" that made a mockery of the administration's key law and order policy platform.
"This is really a serious indictment of any campaign against graft and corruption when people, who are now convicted of heinous crimes, are just being released without the knowledge of the public," Lagman told Reuters.
The Good Conduct Time Allowance Law was passed under Duterte's predecessor in 2013 to encourage rehabilitation, and de-congest some of the world's most crowded jails.
More than 21,000 prisoners were released, 2,000 of whom were sentenced for heinous crimes, like rape, drugs, murder, bribery, plunder, kidnapping and arson.
Of those, close to 900 were freed by a corrections bureau under Duterte loyalist Nicanor Faeldon, and 130 under Ronald dela Rosa, a senator endorsed by Duterte.
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Dela Rosa, a former police chief who led Duterte's war on drugs, said only one of those freed was a drugs offender. Prison documents seen by Reuters, however, show 16 drug criminals were released while he was prisons chief.
Dela Rosa has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but said he is open to being investigated.
He is advocating reinstating capital punishment, which he said made more sense than a good conduct programmes.
"Why pin the blame on us? We are just implementing the law. We didn't make the law", he told news channel ANC.
"To simplify everything, restore the death penalty."
Duterte reluctantly fired Faeldon, relieving him of what was his second high-profile post. He quit as customs chief in 2017 after US$123 million of narcotics passed through the bureau undetected. Faeldon has not been charged with any offence.
He told a Senate hearing that he was unaware the Justice Secretary's approval was required before releasing nearly 900 former felons serving life sentences.
Faeldon's lawyer, Jose Dino, told Reuters his client took no bribes from inmates, but accepted that the buck stopped with him.
"We are not washing our hands over command responsibility", he said.