A MANILA police commander and a dozen anti-narcotics operatives were sacked on Friday after the discovery by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of 12 people stuffed in a hidden detention cell at a police station.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been on the defensive amid international criticism of his bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, vowed to look into the findings of the surprise inspection conducted by CHR officials Thursday evening on Raxabago Street in Tondo district.
“I will look into this, this afternoon. I will call Bato,” the President told reporters, referring to the Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Director General Ronald de la Rosa.
CHR officials said 12 detainees were found in inhuman conditions inside a “secret jail” measuring a meter wide and five meters long, behind a bookshelf at the Manila Police District (MPD) Station 1 that covers Tondo.
The detainees were allegedly being forced to cough up money in exchange for freedom, and had been locked up in the cell for a week.
“There was a source who said that was the situation there. It was said there’s a secret detention cell, and that’s what we discovered,” said CHR Metro Manila director Gilbert Boiser.
“The ones kept there were asked to pay P50,000, P100,000, it depends. It ranges from there,” he added.
Senior Supt. Joel Coronel, the MPD chief, ordered the relief of Supt. Robert Domingo and 12 members of the station’s drug enforcement unit headed by Senior Insp. Edwin Fuggan. Supt. Alberto Barot replaced Domingo as officer in charge of the Raxabago-Tondo Police Station.
The discovery of the hidden jail has triggered further alarm about abuse under Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.
CHR officials, accompanied by journalists, found the men and women in a surprise visit to the 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 had demanded hefty payments in exchange for their freedom.
Domingo, the Manila police station commander, told reporters at the scene on Thursday the detainees were arrested only the previous night.
Oscar Albayalde, director of the Metro Manila police force, said in a statement improper detentions were widespread.
“We must recognize that this problem is not just in one police station but almost in all our stations region-wide,” Albayalde said.
The incident occurred as Duterte began welcoming Southeast Asian leaders for a summit in Manila.
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 President briefly suspended all police from the crackdown in January after an official investigation found that anti-drug operatives kidnapped a South Korean businessman and murdered him as part of an extortion scam.
He said back then that nearly 40 percent of the police force engaged in illegal activities. But he redeployed police onto the drug war about a month later, without major reforms.
Rights groups have questioned his sincerity in wanting to cleanse the police force, citing his promise to pardon officers if they are found guilty of murder for killing in his drug war.
Police have reported killing 2,724 people as part of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, although authorities insist the shootings have been in self-defense.
Many thousands of others have been killed by shadowy vigilantes, according to rights groups.
Lawyer Jude Sabio on Monday filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
‘War on drugs breeds bad cops’
In reaction to the CHR’s discovery, some lawmakers said the war on drugs had only encouraged corrupt policemen to continue their ways.
“While police brutality in Tondo goes as far back as 2011 as evidenced by the Binayug torture case, scalawag cops assigned in the area have taken advantage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs for their illicit activities,” said Rep. Harry Roque, a former human rights lawyer.
Roque was referring to the 2011 case of Senior Insp. Joselito Binayug, who was caught on video torturing a suspected thief who was never seen again. Binayug and eight others were charged for violations of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009.
Representative Edgar Erice of Caloocan City said: “This is a natural consequence when the government tolerates extrajudicial killings.”
For Rep. Teodoro Baguilat of Ifugao, the discovery of the secret cell should trigger anew the suspension of the government’s anti-drug war.
“Incidents like these as well as the kidnap-slay of a Korean businessmen prove that we can’t reimpose the death penalty,” Baguilat said.
Some senators on Friday called on the PNP leadership to immediately punish those who ran the secret cell. “If true, these policemen are no better than the kidnap-for-ransom gangs that I used to chase throughout my law enforcement career,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief.
For Sen. Leila de Lima, a leading critic of the drug war now in jail for what she claims were trumped-up drug trafficking charges, said the discovery of the secret cell indicated the complete breakdown of the rule of law in the country.
“If you can kill 8,000 human beings (and counting), what prevents you from illegally detaining incommunicado victims of Tokhang shakedowns?” she said in a statement, referring to the PNP’s Operation “Tokhang” (knock and plead) drug raids.
“This is a call for our people to wake up and see the bitter truth: change has come, but not the kind we were promised or were hoping for,” de Lima added.