On April 27, 2017, lawyers from the Commission on Human Rights conducted an inspection of the Manila Police District station after receiving a tip that drug suspects were being held in a cell whose entrance was hidden behind a book shelf at the Drug Enforcement Unit office.
The arrests were not recorded and station commander Lt. Col. Robert Casimiro Domingo denied the existence of a secret cell. However, when CHR regional director for Metro Manila Gilbert Biosner knocked on a wooden wall behind a bookshelf, voices were heard coming from the other side.
When the shelf was removed, it revealed a dark, windowless space a meter wide and five meters deep crammed with 12 men and women.
There were allegations that some of the policemen extorted money ranging from P40,000 to P200,000 from the secret cell’s prisoners in exchange for release and that some detainees were physically assaulted.
President Duterte ordered an investigation of the incident and Domingo and 12 of his subordinates were relieved of their duties. The CHR charged Domingo and his men for arbitrary detention, grave threats, grave coercion, robbery-extortion, as well as violation of police procedures.
Four years after what was seen as an open and shut case, the Office of the Ombudsman has surprisingly dismissed the complaints filed against four members of the MPD involved in the Tondo secret cell. The country’s antigraft body said the CHR failed to establish probable cause and that the officers, lacking other spaces for the detainees, did not act in bad faith.
If the decision of the Ombudsman sets a precedent, the country should prepare for more grave abuses of police power such as secret cells and the continued degrading treatment of prisoners that is tantamount to torture is now considered good faith.
As the degree of impunity conferred on overzealous policemen by this government ratchets up, abuses could be normalized, similar practices persist, and police officers inclined towards such wrongful behavior will be emboldened.
How can Filipinos continue to have faith in their government that doesn’t even seem to know the difference between good and bad faith?*