HUMAN rights officials in the Philippines on Thursday made the startling discovery of a dozen men and women locked in a tiny, dark cell concealed behind a bookshelf in a Manila police station.
The Philippines’ official Commission on Human Rights (CHR) exposed the overcrowded secret cell following a tip-off, releasing the detainees who claimed police from the Tondo district station held them captive in order to extort money.
The detainees claimed policemen tortured them and demanded bribes between US$800 and US$4,000 to secure their freedom, an allegation police deny.
The Inquirer quoted Metro Manila regional director Gilbert Boisner as saying that four detainees were locked in the Raxabago station’s drug enforcement unit (DEU) in Tondo, adding their arrests under drug allegations were not even recorded.
“They have been picked and they have to pay up to be freed. That’s the allegation,” he said. “I’m really mad. Did you see that? It’s terrible … My God!”
Boisner said the facility that housed the dozen men and women was in “atrocious, grossly overcrowded conditions.”
In a statement published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Boisner said detainees told CHR and journalists that police had abducted them and held them in the facility for a week without notifying families or lawyers.
Detainees said inadequate lighting, ventilation, and toilet facilities forced them “to urinate and [do] bowel movements in plastic bags”, according to Boisner.
Describing details of the raid, Boisner upon arriving at the scene said the station’s commander, Supt. Robert Domingo, first denied the existence of the hidden cell.
Using the tip from an informant, Boisner proceeded to inspect a brown bookshelf in the DEU office. He knocked on the wooden wall behind the furniture and then heard the hidden detainees responding, the Inquirer reported.
After opening a lock, Boisner found a passage leading to the hidden cell which he described as dark, cramped and windowless.
“They (police) asked if this was a surprise inspection. But I’m the one surprised,” Boisner said.
After the discovery, the station’s commander denied irregular practices, insisting those detained in the secret cell were arrested on Wednesday in a big anti-narcotics operation.
The drug suspects, Domingo said, could not be mixed with other detainees in the station’s main detention cell because police had yet to file cases against them, while cases of detainees in the main lockup had been filed with the prosecutor’s office in Manila.
“It’s such a waste of space. Why should I not maximise it?” Domingo said, as quoted by The Inquirer.
The discovery of the unlawful detention facility comes amid widespread accusations of abuses linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, which has given free reign to police to execute drug suspects.
Almost 9,000 people, many small-time users and dealers, have been killed since Duterte took office last June. Police say about a third of the victims were shot by officers in self-defence during legitimate anti-drug operations.
Human rights monitors believe many of the remaining two thirds were killed by paid assassins operating with police backing or by police disguised as vigilantes – a charge the police deny.
HRW said the discovery of the secret jail is the latest sign of how police are exploiting Duterte’s abusive anti-drug campaign for personal gain.
The rights watchdog cited a government investigation released in January documented the kidnapping of a South Korean national Jee Ick-joo on 18 October 2016, by police who raided his home in Angeles City.
Using a fake arrest warrant, the officers from the the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group falsely accused him of illegal drug activities. They reportedly strangled Jee to death that same day, but two weeks later demanded – and received – a US$100,000 ransom from his family.
“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,” HRW’s Asia deputy director Phelim Kine said.