It is bad enough that drug suspects were found cramped in a makeshift tiny secret jail cell inside a police station in Manila, but it became worse when high-ranking Philippine National Police officials defended its existence.
Acting on information from relatives, officials from the Commission on Human Rights paid a surprise visit to the Raxabago police station in Tondo on April 27. The relatives had informed CHR that poor inmates were locked up in the station without being charged and that their families were being made to pay from P40,000 to P200,000 in exchange for their freedom.
The visit to Manila Police District Station 1 led to the discovery of an airless 1-by-6-meter makeshift cell concealed by a sliding bookshelf that held a dozen people. The suspects had not been formally charged and were not listed in the precinct’s blotter.
Inspecting the cell a day later, PNP chief Director General Ronald De la Rosa said, “As long as hindi sinasaktan ang detainee, at hindi kinokotongan, okay lang sa akin iyon (As long as the detainees are not hurt or extorted from, that’s okay with me).” He had just come from Malacañang where a state banquet for the ASEAN summit delegates was held.
De la Rosa also criticized the timing of CHR’s unannounced visit. He challenged the CHR to hold daily inspections and not time them with an international event, in this case the ASEAN summit, which embarrasses not just the police but also the President and the country.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief, described De la Rosa’s defense of detaining alleged drug suspects in the secret cell as “arrogant” while Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the PNP chief’s statement appeared like it came from a “kanto boy.”
“Defending policemen for maintaining an unlivable secret prison cell hidden behind a bookshelf inside a police station is incomprehensible,” Lacson said in a statement. But he also praised De la Rosa for his excellent work so far and wished him success for what he intends to accomplish during his term.
The arrest of the suspects without charges is nothing new. I have written earlier about policemen observing “social class” in their extortion activities in the guise of the anti-drugs campaign. Those arrested in Tondo were asked to pay an average of P50,000, but those caught in Binondo were asked to cough up P5 million in exchange for dropping of charges.
The mother of one poor victim in Tondo called me up for help several times. “I cannot afford even P5,000. How can I produce P50,000?” she said.
The only help I could give her was to refer her to the legal aid team of the University of the Philippines Law Center, which, I learned, is deluged with requests to represent victims all claiming innocence.
Lacson revealed the many incidents of “tokhang-ransom” in Binondo in a Senate hearing last November.
National Capital Region police chief Supt. Oscar Albayalde subsequently announced the relief of MPD Station 1 commander S/Supt. Robert Domingo and 12 members of the station’s Drug Enforcement Unit headed by S/Insp. Edwin Fuggan. He vowed a thorough investigation by the PNP Internal Affairs Service.
The policemen would tell De la Rosa the detainees had not been abused, contrary to earlier claims made before media and the CHR that they were tortured. A detained couple said they were held for eight days without an inquest, but Albayalde said they were arrested the day the CHR visited the station.
Domingo said the 12 detainees were temporarily held at the DEU office because their arrest papers had not been completed and they could not join the other inmates in the detention facility until they undergo inquest proceedings.
He cited the case of his predecessor, Supt. Redento Ulsano, who was relieved as station commander for detaining drug suspects who had been inquested and were awaiting transfer to the city jail.
“We only have one computer. We have very limited resources. The MPD Station 1 – a building that was formerly occupied by a Department of Public Works and Highways satellite office – has a detention facility that can only accommodate 40 males and 10 females, but there are currently more than 70 males and 15 females being held in the facility who take turns sitting down and sleep in shifts,” Domingo said. Hence, the move to separate those who had just been arrested.
He also justified the delay in processing the inmates, saying, April 27 and 28 were nonworking holidays in Manila because of the ASEAN 2017 Summit.
Human rights commission
The CHR has been one of the staunchest critics of the Duterte administration’s bloody war against drugs and has asked President Duterte to include the agency and other human rights advocates in conducting the revived campaign against illegal drugs.
CHR chairman Luis Manuel Gascon, however, clarified that his agency has no authority to file charges against the policemen involved in the controversy, saying only the Office of the Ombudsman or the Department of Justice can do so.
Gascon said De la Rosa’s defense of Domingo and his men encourages a “climate of impunity” in the country.
“It is prudent that in matters that may involve malfeasance or misconduct by public officials, particularly when these affect fundamental human rights, as in this case, that their superiors refrain (from) making statements that appear to be condoning (the) same,” he said.
Gascon added that De la Rosa should not have justified the existence of the hidden jail as a measure to address the problem of jail congestion. He also welcomed De la Rosa’s call for the CHR to audit all detention places outside and inside Metro Manila amid fears that the Tondo secret jail is no exception.
The secret jail cell highlights the long-running problem of jail congestion. The Senate inquiry on the matter should focus on alternative solutions to this serious problem. I personally think the inhuman conditions inside our jails is a greater violation of human rights than the delay in the inquest proceedings. A crowded city jail is expected, but the condition of the Tondo jail, where inmates sleep in shifts and take turns sitting down because there is simply not enough space, is replicated throughout the metropolis.