Secret cells: a new low for the PNP and the war on drugs

Photo: www.gov.ph

Even for a police force that President Duterte says is “corrupt to the core”, illegally detaining suspects in a secret cell is a shocking abuse of their powers. The Filipino president is fighting his war on drugs while simultaneously battling with a police force that he does not trust.

By John Pennington

President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs continues but the Philippine National Police (PNP) force that he reluctantly pressed back into action continues to let him down. Detaining suspects in a tiny secret cell without allowing them access to water or sanitation is a disgraceful new low.

The Commission of Human Rights (CHR) discovered the detainees during an investigation of the police station in Tondo, Manila. Acting on a tip-off, they found more than 11 people crammed into a tiny space hidden behind a bookshelf.

The prisoners claimed they had been held for more than a week, abused, and were asked for hefty payments to secure their release. Superintendent Robert Domingo, the station’s commander, countered that they were suspected of drug offences and jailed while their documents were being processed.

Human rights organisations quickly condemned the imprisonment, Domingo, and his staff. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the jail an “unlawful detention facility.” Domingo and his colleagues were suspended and then reported to the Ombudsman. They now await their fate and can expect to be charged with multiple offences.

The PNP chief supported Domingo but few others did

There was little sympathy or justification for Domingo and his team, although one supportive voice was that of Philippines National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald dela Rosa.

He defended the secret cell by saying, “As long as the prisoners were not tortured or extorted, it’s okay with me.” Embarrassingly for dela Rosa, Domingo and his colleagues will be investigated for – among other offences – extortion and violating anti-torture law.

Dela Rosa maintains that the CHR – an independent body – was trying to embarrass Duterte’s government at a time when the president was hosting the ASEAN Summit. The CHR, which has no case to answer, rejected those claims. “The (commission) cannot sit idly nor ignore any information which may involve a serious human rights violation,” spokeswoman Jacqueline Ann de Guia said.

Opinions differ as to how widespread secret jails are

Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde admitted cells are overcrowded, partly as a result of the war on drugs, and that facilities are inadequate. After conducting surprise inspections in Metro Manila following the Tondo discovery, he argued, “We wanted to show the citizens that we are not keeping secret jails and to present the conditions of the detained not just in Metro Manila but in the whole country.”

It is a convenient and unconvincing defence of a broken system. The CHR believe that this secret cell is just one of many. A detailed report they published in 2015 entitled “A Study of the Human Rights Situation in Police Lock-Up Cells in the National Capital Region”, highlighted that police stations in the country probably made wide use of the facility.

They also reported that many detainees were denied basic human rights and often tortured. The report noted examples including police officers hitting prisoners with cups or guns, pouring water down prisoners’ noses while their hands were bound, as well as officers kicking and beating prisoners. One prisoner was seen being beaten with a wooden plank. Females were made to undress in front of officers and there is often merely nominal separation of men, women, children, and disabled prisoners.

Secret jails may just be one more form of police criminality that has multiplied during the drug war,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s Deputy Asia Director, said. He has urged Duterte’s government to mandate the CHR and the National Bureau of Investigation to find the secret jails and prosecute those operating them. But will Duterte take any notice?

Police criminality continues to rise

Kine’s assessment is likely correct. There is ample historical evidence of police brutality in the Philippines, but police criminality since Duterte launched the war on drugs in June 2016 has become more prevalent. More than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed since the campaign began. The police claim responsibility for less than half of them. HRW assert that many of the remainders were extrajudicial executions carried out by the PNP. Those numbers don’t even include those innocently killed in the crossfire, or “collateral damage”, as Duterte puts it.

In late January, Duterte suspended the war on drugs while he tried to root out corruption and reorganise the PNP. It was a short hiatus; Duterte made no major changes and the war soon resumed. The PNP’s own “internal cleansing” – of which Domingo was a staunch supporter – has had little impact.

Duterte says he will look into the secret cell

More recently, Duterte lambasted the police again after four officers were arrested on charges of kidnapping and extortion in Manila’s Makati district. Never a man to mince his words, he did not hold back. “I was reading, coming here, another spot report of four policemen again (linked to) kidnapping,” he said, before adding, “These policemen, sons of whores!”

Duterte vowed to investigate the secret cell and talk to dela Rosa. The latter will have a hard time dissuading his President that this is yet more evidence of police officers abusing the powers they have been given to fight the war on drugs. While dela Rosa defended Domingo and the use of the secret cell, given how outspoken and combative Duterte has been towards the police, it is hard to see him taking a similar line.

Duterte will still have to rely on the PNP whether he likes it or not

Duterte is utterly committed to the war on drugs. He remains on track to win it – whatever the human cost. He doesn’t care about human rights and the global outrage the war has produced.

What he does seem to care about is that his orders are carried out and police powers are not abused. Yet he is fighting his war with a police force he does not trust. A police force that has been incentivised to kill the guilty but instead abuses those powers against the innocent. If the cycle of corruption and mistrust continues, and Duterte is unable to force through change, how long before he feels he has to take more drastic action?

For all his frustration, little will change in the short term. The military’s engagements in Mindanao mean Duterte will for now be forced to keep the disgraced PNP at the forefront of the war on drugs, whether or not he decides to condemn the illegal, inhumane, and unconstitutional detention of prisoners in hidden cells such as the one discovered in Tondo.