The little blue 'house of torture'
LAGUNA, Philippines – There is nothing about this house that makes it stand out.
The bright blue gate would've made it memorable, but the neighbor's blue gate in a different shade is just as striking. Outside, 3 askals (street dogs) and a timid-looking German Shepherd stand guard. Only a small whiteboard announcing the transfer of prisoners to a nearby jail gives a hint to what is – or was inside.
The small property located inside a private subdivision is ground zero of a scandal that's rocking the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the city of Biñan, Laguna. On Friday, January 24, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) revealed what one agent called a case of "systematic" and "premeditated" torture by members of the Laguna provincial police.
The victims? At least 22 inmates from different Laguna cities. The affidavits reveal horrible human rights violations. The inmates, most of whom are wanted for drug trafficking, were kicked, punched, electrocuted, and hit with different objects – from steel bars to baseball bats.
The policemen spun a "roulette" wheel to pick among a list of tortures to be meted out. One punishment, code-named "Manny Pacman" after the Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, has an officer continuously punching an inmate for 20 seconds.
The discovery of the "torture prison" caused the dismissal of at least 10 policemen.
It's a huge setback for the PNP under the Aquino administration. The police force continues to implement a "total transformation." Part of that transformation is an emphasis on human rights.
Edgar de Luna, one of the regional CHR's investigators, said members of the Provincial Intelligence Branch (PIB) of the Laguna police allegedly tortured inmates to extort money, extract information, force confessions, and worst of all, to amuse themselves.
The case has also attracted international attention, with the Amnesty International demanding the prosecution of the cops involved.
But one man who's seen and interacted with the 44 inmates and the 10 dismissed cops has a very different view. "It's unfair to the cops," one of the PIB caretakers told Rappler. "People don't know what kind of people [the inmates] are, that's why they judge," the caretaker added.
He said the inmates are a menace to society, and doesn't understand why the CHR or the government would side with known drug pushers and users. "Your child, brother or sister – those are people [the inmates] could have hurt," he said. The 10 PIB officers were good men, he added.
The PIB satellite office in Biñan used to house over 44 inmates from the city police station. They were brought there, the CHR found out, because the old police station could no longer accommodate more inmates.
It's called a "lock-in jail," or a facility used as a "halfway house" while inmates wait for courts to order their place of detention. But for many inmates, the stay at the PIB was anything but temporary.
One alleged torture victim had been detained in the satellite office since October 2013. De Luna said some inmates had called the tiny detention facility home for over a year. To make it worse, De Luna told Rappler, the PIB had "no capacity to detain" inmates, unlike other police units.
The reaction is more or less the same across the board. The PNP, through spokesman Chief Superintendent Theodore Sindac, condemned the alleged torture and promised the PNP would conduct an investigation parallel to the CHR's.
On Thursday, January 30, when Rappler visited the PIB satellite office inside a private subdivision, dismantling – as ordered the PNP command – had already begun. All PIB operatives were ordered to report to the police headquarters in Sta Cruz town. It will take around a week for the remaining caretakers and several workers to dismantle most of the structures, before they turn over the site to the land's owner.
Some of the dismissed policemen's personal belongings are still inside their office, and won't be moved until further notice. "But they'll come back for them soon," said the caretaker. They'll come back, he said, even if "life has been a living hell" for them since the exposé.
The summary dismissal proceedings for the 10 will be conducted soon at the police regional headquarters in Camp Vicente Lim in Canlubang, Laguna.
Fault of one, fault of all
Not all of the 10 police officers relieved from duty were directly part of the alleged torture. Several, said De Luna, were dismissed because they did nothing to prevent or stop the torture from happening.
PO3 Francisco Tenorio Jr, a jailer from the Binnan city police force, admitted the exposé has taken its toll on him and the unit. "Malaki ang epekto, ang nakasalalay pangalan namin. Sa dami ng mabuti na ginawa namin, isang mali lang, generalized kami," he said. (It has a huge effect. At stake is our name. We've done a lot of good things but we're being generalized based on one mistake.)
The mistake Tenorio is talking about started in February last year. He said local police had no idea what was going on inside the PIB satellite office. What surprised them the most, he said, was the involvement of Police Inspector Arnold Formento, who used to be part of the city's police force.
Formento was a deputy in the city up until 2013, he said. Formento, who was relieved due to command responsibility, is a kind man, Tenorio said. In fact, he added, the alleged torture victims now detained at the new Binan city police station, said they were never beaten up or abused while Formento was in the office.
Still, he faces responsibility for not doing anything to prevent the torture.
The other consequence of the exposé is that the policemen of Biñan City are getting the flack for the torture, even if none of their units were involved. "Kami ang nadawit kasi kung may report, 'Biñan police' ang tawag. Provincial intelligence board sila, hindi sa city," added Tenorio. (We're dragged into the issue because when media reports about it, they say 'Biñan police.' They're part of the provincial intelligence board, not the city police.)
CHR investigator De Luna said the Biñan police's track record would not have readily hinted at cases of human rights violations. But he can't say that it's an isolated case in the province or the region. It's just the first of its kind with "solid evidence," De Luna explained. .
Region 4-A Chief of Police Jesus Gatchalian said they will study the torture case to find weak spots in police training. Also relieved from duty were two police Laguna police heads: Laguna police chief Senior Superintendent Pascual Muñoz and Laguna Intelligence chief Superintendent Kirby John Kraft.
Sindac said PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima has ordered a re-inventory of the PNP's lock-up jails. The CHR, meanwhile, will be inspecting other jails in the country for possible cases of abuse. The commission's investigation is still ongoing, which could lead to criminal charges against the police officers involved.
De Luna also said: "Maybe the time [the CHR] spent on pro-active measures for police were ineffective, lacking."
Tenorio, who's been in the police force for 10 years, acknowledged it's a wake-up call. "[Dapat] maging aware [lahat ng kapulisan] sa treatment [ng inmates] kasi may karapatan naman sila," he said. (The police have to know how to treat inmates properly because they have rights too.) – Rappler.com