A DOZEN men and women were found stuffed inside a secret closet-sized cell hidden behind a book shelf in a Tondo police station, triggering further alarm about abuse under President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.
Members of the Commission on Human Rights, accompanied by journalists, found the detainees in a surprise visit to the Raxabago station in the heart of Manila’s slum area on Thursday evening.
Cries of “here we are, here we are” were heard from behind a wall, according to the rights workers and journalists. The rights workers then found a hidden door behind a bookshelf, leading to the cell.
Stunned detainees came stumbling out of the room, some begging for water while others, in tears, pleaded with the rights workers not to abandon them.
The detainees said they had been held for about a week after being arrested on allegations of drug use or trafficking and that police were demanding hefty payments of up to P200,000 in exchange for their freedom.
“They were picked up on the pretext of drugs but they [the police] had not filed any charges against them,” said Gilbert Boisner, Manila director for the CHR who led the inspection.
The detainees also accused policemen of torturing them and demanding money for their freedom.
The detainees also claimed that inadequate lighting, ventilation, and toilet facilities forced them “to urinate and do bowel movements in plastic bags,” Boisner said.
The station commander, Supt. Robert Domingo, told reporters at the scene the detainees were arrested only the previous night and police were preparing to file charges against them.
Domingo and 12 other police officers were suspended on Friday pending an investigation, national police spokesman Senior Supt. Dionardo Carlos said.
“He [Domingo] will undergo an administrative case. If evidence warrants, a criminal case will also be filed against him and the persons involved,” Carlos said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the incident was another sign of widespread rights abuse under Duterte’s war on drugs, which has seen thousands of drug suspects killed either by policemen or mysterious vigilantes.
“The discovery of the secret jail is just the latest sign of how police are exploiting Duterte’s abusive anti-drug campaign for personal gain,” a Human Rights Watch statement said.
Duterte said Friday he would look into the secret jail.
At least two senators spoke out against the maintenance of a “secret jail” for drug suspects.
“If true, these policemen are no better than the kidnap-for-ransom gangs that I used to chase throughout my law enforcement career,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former chief of the Philippine National Police.
“Those responsible must therefore be treated no differently from those criminal syndicates that they themselves are mandated to neutralize,” he added.
Liberal Party acting president Senator Francis Pangilinan, like Lacson, said the matter should be investigated thoroughly and that those involved are swiftly punished.
Pangilinan cited several cases were members of the Philippine National Police have abused their office “under the guise of the war on drugs” and urged authorities to address what he described as a “systematic pattern of abuse.”
Duterte briefly suspended all police from the crackdown in January after an official investigation found drug officers kidnapped a South Korean businessman and murdered him as part of an extortion scam.
Duterte described the police force then as “corrupt to the core” and vowed it would not be allowed to prosecute the drug war its ranks had been “cleansed.”
Duterte redeployed police onto the drug war about a month later, without major reforms.
A lawyer on Monday filed a complaint at International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
The incident occurred as Duterte began welcoming Southeast Asian leaders for a summit in Manila.
Phelim Kine, deputy director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said since Duterte took office in June 2016, police and unidentified gunmen have killed more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers—but this number doesn’t include the victims Duterte calls “collateral damage”—including children killed by stray police bullets.
Police claim responsibility for 2,717 of the deaths—all justified, they assert.
Kine said to expect unlawful police abuses in the name of Duterte’s “war on drugs” to continue until the United Nations establishes an urgently needed independent, international investigation into the killings—and the secret jails that are part of it.
Acting on a tip from an informant that supposed drug suspects had been arrested for extortion, the CHR conducted the surprise visit on Thursday and found the “hidden cell.”
Detainees claim the policemen were asking P40,000 to P200,000 from them in exchange for their freedom. They also accused the policemen of torturing them to make them admit to the crime they did not commit.
But Domingo said those detained in the cell were those who have yet to undergo inquest proceedings.
He also denied that it was a hidden detention cell but called it an “investigation room.”
Domingo also denied they were extorting money from the detainees.
“It’s their words against our words. These are just allegations,” he said.
Chairman Chito Gascon of the CHR urged the PNP to issue a memo to all senior and junior police officers with clear-cut instructions to protect the human righs of all persons arrested or detained.
“The [PNP] human rights affairs office must issue a memorandum to all of its station commanders (nationwide) that such is against the law,” he said, referring to the secret jail found in the Tondo station. “A police officer must not abuse his position.”
He also said there would be no letup in their jail inspections.
“We will even more intensify our jail visitations,” he told reporters. With Macon Ramos-Araneta, Rio N. Araja, Herand Kezia Pandaan, AFP and PNA
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