MANILA, Philippines – Philippine police relieved a station chief and his staff on Friday after human rights representatives discovered a secret jail cell inside the Manila station where a dozen detainees complained they were being held for extortion.
Human Rights Watch said the finding was the latest abuse linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on illegal drugs, which has left thousands dead since last year.
The commission’s representatives on Thursday led reporters to the dark, cramped passage that was hidden behind a bookshelf at the Raxabago station in Mania’s impoverished Tondo district.
The men and women held inside told reporters their families had not been told where they were. They said they were tortured by police who demanded bribes of between $800-$4,000 for their freedom, Human Rights Watch said.
The detainees said that inadequate lighting, ventilation, and toilet facilities forced them “to urinate and (do) bowel movements in plastic bags,” according to Commission on Human Rights Director of National Capital Region Gilbert Boisner, who led the discovery.
The station’s commander Superintendent Robert Domingo denied allegations of torture and extortion and said the cell was used because the main lockup facility was overcrowded with drug suspects.
Domingo and the station’s drug enforcement unit were relieved Friday by the Metro Manila police director Oscar Albayalde. He told ABS-CBN television that their removal will pave the way for an impartial investigation.
The detainees were transferred to the station’s drug unit facility and police said they were still facing drug charges.
Boisner said there had been no record of the detainees’ arrests and inquest proceedings.
In a separate case, prosecutors said Thursday they have filed murder charges against two police officers accused of killing a suspected drug dealer and his father inside a police station last July.
The case became prominent after the victim’s common-law wife testified about the killings in the Senate and has since been placed in the witness protection program.
Alan Mangabat, senior assistant prosecutor of Pasay City in metropolitan Manila, said that Pasay police officers Alipio Balo and Michael Tomas were each charged in February with two murder before the Pasay Regional Trial Court for the deaths of 28-year-old suspected drug dealer Jaypee Bertes and his father Renato Bertes.
The charges have not been previously reported.
He said that the medical findings and gunshots sustained by the victims “do not jive with the policemen’s version” that they were shot after trying to grab one of the officers’ guns.
In an open letter to Philippine Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, Amnesty International this week called on authorities to conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into all drug related killings, and to press criminal charges against suspects, regardless of rank or status.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said “the so-called extrajudicial killings are not state-sanction or state-sponsored.” He said that police conducting legitimate operations are required to follow protocols and those who breach them are made to answer before the law.
Abella said that the Senate had conducted an independent investigation into the charges hurled against Duterte by a self-confessed assassin, and senators found no proof of state-sponsored killings.
On Monday, a Filipino lawyer presented documents to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which he said contain evidence of Duterte’s alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings.