Police Supt. Robert Domingo is no stranger to media workers packing the premises of Manila’s police station 1 in Raxabago Street, Tondo.
He previously held press conferences at his office, especially to those of the night beat, baring his team’s latest bust or capture.
The group of reporters and shooters that swarmed his station at dusk of April 27 would have been no different.
This time, though, things were not going the station chief’s way.
“Huwag na tayo magpalusot, pare. Halata naman. Tahimik na lang sana tayo, nagka-ganito pa.”
Atty. Gilbert Boisner, the white-haired, bespectacled director of the Commission on Human Rights’ investigations office was chiding Domingo. While both were nearly the same height, Boisner chose to sit. They were holed up near the door at a corner of the drug enforcement unit’s office at the back of the station. There was hardly room to move.
Their point of contention was at the opposite corner of that office, between them and a mass of people way more than the office can comfortably hold, and hidden behind a wooden bookshelf.
Boisner and other lawyers of the CHR had just discovered a makeshift jail cell behind that bookshelf. In it, at least 10 men and women spent no less than 24 hours in relative darkness beside trash and, they said, their own wastes.
Domingo was trying to explain that the people found jailed in the cell had yet to be booked. Boisner would have none of it. To him, there was no excuse for what they found. Things could be different if the police just admitted it, he said.
But before the CHR attorneys pulled back the heavy bookshelf to reveal the inside of that dank room, Domingo was denying to them there was anyone locked up inside any hidden room.
And then Boisner heard a knock. He approached the wall and shouted: “Ilan kayo (How many are you)?”
“Marami (Many)!” voices shouted back.
“Huwag kayo matakot, human rights kami (Don’t be afraid, we’re with human rights)!” his colleague Atty. Brenda Canapi said.
Domingo only looked on as Boisner tried to find a way to open the shelf.
Boisner and his companions came to the station with tips from people who said they had been inside. Some of the journalists invited to join the surprise inspection had little idea what they would find.
Jail visits are part of the CHR’s mandate, but this find shocked them. Boisner kept exclaiming “Wooh!” when we asked him to describe what he saw.
In the hour that followed, the DEU office was abuzz with questions and answers.
An old lady broke down as she recounted to reporters how she could not stomach the beatings she said the police gave her cellmates.
One person admitted to using drugs which was why he was arrested, while a couple said they were innocent of it.
The woman told me they were piled up inside the cell. The man said he was beaten and told to pay up to go free. He had no money. He begged for him and his partner to be released, since no one would be around to watch their children.
“Natatakot kami baka torture-in kami kapag iniwan niyo kami (We’re afraid we might be tortured if you leave us),” he said.
The stink and (lack of) space in the cramped cell was one thing. Manila’s jails all had the same.
What appalled the CHR was the stories of abuse they heard. On two corners of the office were posted copies of the Miranda rights, a statement read to people police arrested to inform them of their rights. The detainees may not have known or heard those rights.
What continued to bother the CHR was why the cell had to be hidden behind a bookshelf. (The police said it was to prevent the arrested from escaping.)
Through it all, Domingo visibly restrained himself. He left the room amid the ruckus.
Some of his men who remained inside, however, lost their composure when they saw some of the attorneys lead the discovered detainees to the door.
Two were hauled back inside. The lawyers and the police officers raised voices at each other, until the investigator in charge of the booking procedure shouted.
These were legitimate arrests, the police said. What or who gave them the right to go free? How could they even proceed with logging the arrests if there was no room inside the office?
The media were asked to leave. The CHR officers later went home.
Domingo was usually open, even genial, to the media. When we saw him leave the DEU office and approached him for a comment, he tried to avoid our pack:
“Hindi niyo na ako kailangang kunan ng interview. Kami pa rin naman ang kontrabida rito.” (You don’t need to interview me. We’ll still end up the villains here.)
But when asked what would happen after this, he began answering our questions.
“It’s their word versus our word. Lalabanan namin sila sa korte (We will fight them in court).”
Domingo repeated the same statements, this time more calmly, when he called us into his office later. He now wore his uniform and the hint of a smile.
The situation depended on how one saw it, he said. The CHR saw maltreatment, he saw initiative to avoid congesting the already cramped station jail.
He said he didn’t expect a good opinion from the commission because of the “fragile” atmosphere of the government’s war on drugs. Domingo instead challenged them to file cases against him and his men.
“Hindi ba kayo happy the 12 of them are lahat, buhay? Kasi hindi naman sila lumaban. Kung ‘yan pinatutubos ‘yan, wala kayong aabutan diyan. We’ve learned our lesson diyan sa tubos-tubos na ‘yan.”
(Aren’t you happy the 12 are alive? That’s because they didn’t fight back. If they were being asked for money to be redeemed, you wouldn’t have found anyone inside. We’ve learned our lesson from that episode.)
That same argument was what Domingo greeted his bosses at the PNP with when they came to visit the station the next morning.
Our news team, which had already covered the CHR visit, had returned to Station 1 to go live for our morning show. Just when we thought another team would take it from there, the story exploded. I and two more reporters had to catch the fallout.
By the time Domingo faced his chiefs at the Manila Police District and the National Capital Region Police Office, he had just been fired as station chief. The 12-man drug enforcement unit would later follow him out.
His deputies told us Domingo only caught sleep a few hours before sunrise. He had Boisner again to the press after midnight and was already up by morning to field calls from TV and radio shows.
But the loss of his post did not seem to bother him as he narrated to MPD director Chief Supt. Joel Coronel and NCRPO Dir. Oscar Albayalde his objections to the CHR’s findings.
“Buti nga buhay, sir (At least they’re alive),” he told them.
The discovery of the so-called secret jail cell was like a throw from the left field for the police. Their forces all over Metro Manila were deployed that week for the ASEAN summit. The timing with the summit couldn’t have been more directly placed, as concerns continue to be raised about how some police could have taken liberties with the drug war.
Albayalde would have been busy monitoring security at the summit area Pasay City when he decided to visit the station and see the controversial jail cell for himself.
But the situation had already been managed in time for the visit.
The bookshelf door was gone. The ventilation and metal bars placed inside the cell were removed. The gate which the cell apparently led to had been opened. And someone was taking out the trash.
For the chiefs, the issue had become overcrowding in police detention facilities. The allegations of torture and extortion they left to the investigating panel from PNP’s Internal Affairs Service to judge.
They brought out some of the supposed detainees who had already been moved to the regular jail.
These men refuted what others disclosed during the CHR’s visit. One even said they preferred to stay at the secret jail since they could at least get to lie down despite the squalid conditions.
Domingo remained defiant, with a smug look at the back as reporters quizzed Albayalde and Coronel after their tour. At least, no questions were coming his way. His bosses were taking the cudgels. His chief at the PNP, Ronald Dela Rosa, would do the same.
There are still unanswered questions: How long had that jail cell indeed been used? Could other police stations have hidden jail cells with similarly sinister purposes? Did this go way back before Domingo?
Also, unfinished business: What about the detainees and their revelations? How will the CHR build up its case? Will anyone be convicted for this, or will the stories remain stories?
One thing is sure, for now—that jail cell just released its last prisoners.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.