EDITORIAL | Illegal and inexcusable

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Bernard Testa, InterAksyon

And it really should end with the title of this editorial. Anybody who has seen pictures and footage of the secret cell at a Tondo police station knows that there can be no justification for the illegal detention of any Filipino under any pretense, and certainly no way to defend the horrific conditions by which 18 people were allegedly hostaged in that jail hidden behind a book shelf.

Unlogged, undocumented, held without benefit of any charge, crammed into an unlit, window-less room unventilated save for a ceiling fan to circulate the stench and humidity of everybody’s sweat, the lone urinal they shared, and turd they kept in plastic bags until somebody outside would thoughtfully remember to dispose of it lest the methane build up in that concrete box and combust.

The scene last Thursday was so blatant, the crime so evident, that Police Director Oscar Albayalde, the Regional PNP Director for the National Capital Region, knew there was no point denying what the Commission on Human Rights had exposed. Albayalde actually expressed “our gratitude to the CHR for taking time to inspect the detention cells of our stations.” It was “an eye opener”, he said, as he vowed not to “tolerate any illegal act committed by our policemen.”

Given the contentious, contemptuous relationship the Duterte administration has had with the CHR and human rights advocates in general, Albayalde’s statements were refreshing and seemed sincerely constructive.

And still it missed the point.

After relieving the station commander, ordering an internal affairs investigation, and pointing out that the NCRPO has embarked on a human rights education program among its rank and file, Albayalde ultimately framed the hidden detention cell as merely emblematic of budget inadequacies and of the travails of poor, overworked policemen having to make the most of the nothing that they have. The “eye opener”, it turns out, is but “for all of us to revisit the need for better cell detention and improvement of our jail facilities.”

President Rodrigo Duterte, awkwardly sought for comment as he was hosting the leaders of ASEAN in Manila, said the proper enough thing. “I will look into this. I will call Bato.”

Great. And so much for that.

The PNP chief has turned in the most disappointing performance in this scandal so far. Given a reasonable opening by Albayalde, Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa barreled into the discussion with no question as to how exactly he will advise the President to “look into” the whole affair.

Bato’s immediate instinct was to question the CHR’s motives. He asked: Why time the surprise inspection in Tondo to coincide with the Philippine hosting of the ASEAN summit?

Indeed, some of the detainees told media that they had been stewing in the dank for one to two weeks already. What’s another two days? Let our guests leave and we’ll get to the bottom of this soon enough without any unnecessary embarrassment.

By Monday, however – precisely and immediately after all ASEAN VIPs had left – the country’s top cop could not see what all the outrage was about. He told ABS-CBN in Filipino: “For me, I pity my policemen. They improvise to maximize the space – it’s already too tight (in that station) – they make the effort to find space, and Jesus, they end up as the ones at fault.”

Bato insisted that he was not denying the possibility that people were detained in facilities that fall short of what is legally prescribed, and acknowledged that Tondo police officers will have to be held accountable “should it be found that they indeed violated laws regarding jailing people outside of recognized jails.”

But then his bottom line: “Ano ngayon?

So what?

Bato said he would not condone, but neither would he even consider that there was something even darker than the pitch black room his men had built for secret detainees. Hindi ko sila kunukunsinti,” ABS-CBN quoted the general. “Sinasabi ko lang na walang ginawa na masama dahil ‘di nangotong, di nananakit, at di lumagpas reglamentary period ang kanilang pagkakakulong. So anong masama doon?

In English: “I am not enabling them. I’m just saying they did nothing wrong. They did not extort, they did not harm, and nobody was held beyond the reglamentary period. So what’s wrong with that?”

What’s wrong is that PNP Chief Dela Rosa is enabling them. Not just a station, but an entire police force, that has built up a notorious image precisely on individuals’ penchant for extortion, doing harm, and then protecting their own. Bato was supposedly embarrassed when an alleged drug lord was assassinated by police right inside a jail cell in Leyte, and a South Korean businessman was kidnapped on the pretext of an anti-drug bust and then killed right inside Camp Crame, to the point that he acknowledged that a purge of the ranks may be more urgent than the drug war itself. Thousands of drug-related murders later, the cleansing of the ranks has been suspended and all but forgotten, and not even a station commander sitting on what suspiciously looks like bounty will move Bato to recognize the chink in Duterte’s armour. The President remains popular, but Malacanang insiders have no doubt taken note that there was a real dip in approval ratings among Duterte’s mass base. Why is that?

The most heinous point in Tondo is not that people were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a concrete cell. This much is true: We’ve seen that before. What truly shook the nation is that this time they were, with much trouble, hidden from view. No presumption of regularity when the station commander forgets to volunteer or mention to the human rights and media workers he supposedly welcomed: “Oh, by the way, have you seen what we’ve done to the place? Check it out. It’s not a shelf, it’s…Tada!” This is not what Pinterest pegs are for. Filipinos were being held without charge, without so much as being logged until the media and the CHR came to check on a tip. The inescapable question that should be asked is precisely: If these people were not being held for ransom, for what reason would cops have them take up precious space?

There could be other reasons, but nothing would reassure. The CHR has called for an audit of all jail facilities in the country not only because paranoia has its virtue; it was Albayalde himself who first suggested that where one budget-strapped station exists, there may be an untold number of outposts innovating on detention. But to look everywhere is also wise because it is reasonable to wonder to what methods spoiled, enabled policemen would resort when every killing is now more heavily, and internationally, questioned. People fret over EJKs. What about desaparecidos?

We wouldn’t jump to conclusions, of course. Unless the Chief of the National Police insists these are questions not worth asking.