MORE SECRET CELLS? | CHR urges audit of police stations, worries disappearances replacing EJKs in drug war

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The entrance to the 'secret cell' of Manila Police District Station 1. (image from News5 video)

MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE 3 – 4:08 p.m.) Commission on Human Rights chairman Jose Luis Gascon challenged the leadership of the Philippine National Police to order an audit of all police stations in the country to ferret out possible “secret” detention cells following the discovery of such a facility in Tondo, Manila Thursday evening.

Gascon also worried about what he said could be the “changing shape” of the government’s war on drugs by resorting to enforced disappearances in an “attempt to play down” the thousands of killings that have marked the anti-narcotics campaign since Duterte came to power last year.

A CHR team checking on reports that persons were being detained for lengthy periods without being charged or their arrests being recorded at Manila Police District Station 1 were shocked to discover a dozen detainees, nine men and three women, crammed into the narrow, dark and airless cell hidden behind a cabinet inside the police outpost.

Some of the detainees claimed they had been held without charges for up to a week. Others accused the policemen of demanding hefty sums to release them.

In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the enforced disappearance of the farmer-activist Jonas Burgos, Gascon said unless the practice of detaining persons in secret cells is ended and the perpetrators punished, the chances of having more desaparecidos like Jonas Burgos will remain high.

“It seems a new toolkit of the (extrajudicial killings) is the resort to enforced disappearances,” he said even as he acknowledged that they are still collating the numbers and asked the media to take a deeper look into the development as well.

Nevertheless, the CHR chief asked: “Is this a singular case in Station 1 of MPD? Because the reality of (enforced) disappearances continues. The Exhibit A of resort to disappearances is what happened in Tondo.”

The CHR chair said the law against torture and enforced disappearances explicitly prohibits secret detention cells while the Constitution outlaws cruel, unusual and degrading punishment.

He said he would “communicate” with Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa on the matter and would also see if the PNP Human Rights Office could issue a clear memorandum to field units reminding them of the strict prohibition on secret detention facilities.

Gascon said, in a press conference at the CHR after rites marking the Burgos abduction anniversary: “Ang tanong namin, kung sa Station 1 may ganyan, yun lang po ba ang may ganyan? Panawagan po namin sa buong kapulisan. Kung talagang sinasabi nila we intend to  clean our ranks, simulan sa pag-audit sa lahat ng police stations. Alamin kung may mga ganyang solitary. At kasabay ng panawagang ‘yan kung may nagme-maintain nun ay panagutin. Hold all the perpetrators to account for their human rights violations.”

Gascon added they will step up the CHR’s jail visitation program. “Babalikan namin ang Station 1 dahil baka ‘pag lumamig ito magamit uli. Kung pwede, i-seal ang mga ‘yan at ma-map po natin [We will return to Station 1 in Tondo because if the issue dies down, this secret cell might be used again. We hope it can be sealed and mapped].”

It was imperative, said the CHR chair, to find out “how deep this goes, how far it goes.”

He assured the public that “when we find violations of human rights, we will remind the State of its obligations and ask them to address it,” but underscored the importance of punishing those who short-circuit the legal process in apprehending and prosecuting suspected drug personalities. He said, “it’s not just an audit that we want, mapping how many of these are occurring. But we want to make sure there are sanctions against the station commanders that have been doing this. This practice should not continue.”

Lightning rally for Jonas

Meanwhile, also to mark the decade since Burgos was abducted by military intelligence officers from a mall in Quezon City, members of Desaparecidos, wearing masks of the disappeared activist, staged a picket in front of military headquarters Camp Aguinaldo.

Members of Desparecido wearing masks showing the face of missing activist Jonas Burgos picket Camp Aguinaldo to mark the 10th anniversary of his abduction by military agents. (Contributed photo)

Armed Forces of the Philippines commander General Eduardo Año, who was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte, is one of the military officers linked to the abduction and disappearance of Jonas, who is a son of press freedom icon Jose Burgos Jr.

“Let Jonas’ face be marked in their memories. Let it disturb them,” Concepcion Empeño, Desaparecido chairperson and herself the mother of a missing activist, Karen, a student of the University of the Philippines.

“After three regimes and a decade, let this be a testament that we continue to look for him, and demand justice for Jonas and all the military abducted and made to disappear,” she said even as she said the families of the forcibly disappeared were losing hope of finding justice if those responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones not only continued to evade accountability but also rose to power.

“As long as the military remains as the main instrument in suppressing the people’s aspirations for genuine peace and justice, we should continue searching. This is our tribute to missing. We will continue to hound them, in the name of justice,” Empeño said.

Lawmakers weigh in

Lawmakers weighed in on the issue of “secret detention cells” such as those found in Tondo’s Station 1.

Senator Francis Pangilinan said the matter “should be investigated thoroughly and wrongdoers swiftly punished.”

Citing the kidnapping and murder of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo, the alleged “rubout” of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. in his jail cell, and other cases of police excesses “under the guise of the war on drugs,” Pangilinan said unless “this systematic pattern of abuse” is addressed, “I am afraid the war on drugs will fail in its objective of ridding the nation of illegal drugs and instead succeed in spreading lawlessness, police corruption, and abuse.”

Former PNP chief now senator Panfilo Lacson said, “If true, these policemen are no better than the kidnap-for-ransom gangs that I used to chase throughout my law enforcement career. Those responsible must therefore be treated no differently from those criminal syndicates that they themselves are mandated to neutralize.” 

Sen. Bam Aquino urged the government not to treat with kid gloves erring policemen who were behind the secret jail cell discovered inside a police station in Manila, insisting that they should be held accountable for their actions.

“If the administration’s priority is the drug war, then we need an upstanding police force. Transferring scalawag policemen to Basilan is not enough,” the senator emphasized, adding that “the rest of the world is watching closely and Filipino lives hang in the balance”.

House probe sought

Former human rights lawyer now representative Harry Roque said he will file a resolution once Congress resumes session on May 2 for an investigation in aid of legislation on the violations against Republic Act 9745 (Anti-Torture Act of 2009) allegedly committed by police personnel assigned at MPD Station 1.

Deputy Minority Leader and Kabayan Party-list Roque said, “I find it profoundly disturbing that these men and women were 1) illegally detained – because there appears to be no records of their arrest – and 2) subjected to cruel, degrading, and inhumane conditions.”

Roque cited Section 12 Paragraph 2 of the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, which states that “torture, force, violence, threat, intimidation, or any other means which vitiate the free will of a person under investigation for the commission of a crime shall be used against him and that secret detention places, solitary, incommunicado, or other similar forms of detention are prohibited.”

Meanwhile, he said, Section 4(b)(3) of the Anti-Torture Act “classifies confinement in secret detention places as mental/psychological torture while Section 7 of the same law explicitly prohibits these secret detention cells.”

Binayug torture case

Roque said that 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.

“The PNP should step back in the manner the war on drugs is being carried out because it appears to embolden scalawags. The PNP leadership should prosecute these miscreants to show resolve to follow the Rule of Law,” Roque said.

“The Center for International Law (Centerlaw) will help the victims file cases against the police personnel in Station 1. I am glad that the station commander has been relieved of duty as he should be held liable for command responsibility,” he added. “We will prosecute those responsible to assist the President in cleansing the ranks of the PNP.”

Roque is the founding chairman of Centerlaw.

In 2011, PSInsp. Joselito Binayug, who was then head of the Asuncion Police Community Precinct (PCP) in Tondo, was caught on video torturing a suspected thief who was never seen again.

Binayug and the entire Asuncion PCP roster were relieved from their posts following the incident. Binayug was subsequently dismissed from service. He and eight others were also charged with violations of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009. (With reports by L.M. Fernandez, Roices Naguit and Lira Dalangin-Fernandez)