Philippine police chief backs 'secret cell' detention

The Philippines' police chief came under fire Saturday for defending the detention of a dozen people inside a closet-sized secret cell in a case that raised further alarm about abuses under President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs.

The men and women were found packed into the tiny cell behind a wooden cabinet at a Manila police precinct on Thursday, sparking a public outcry, a police inquiry and the suspension of the officers at the unit.

But on late Friday national police chief Ronald Dela Rosa visited the police station to defend his men's actions.

"As long as the prisoners were not tortured or extorted, it's okay with me," he told reporters.

Dela Rosa also accused the Commission on Human Rights, an independent state body which had made the discovery during an unannounced visit, of plotting to embarrass the government.

The detainees, since moved to a regular prison cell, alleged they had been held without charges for about a week and that police had demanded hefty payments in exchange for their freedom.

Dela Rosa rejected the allegations while urging the commission to conduct regular police prison visits instead of making a random one timed with an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit that Duterte hosted Saturday.

Rights body chief Jose Gascon urged the police chief to refrain from making statements that he said would appear to condone an illegal act, such as running secret detention facilities.

"Otherwise, to do so further encourages the climate of impunity that perpetuates wrongful action because the wrongdoers are not held accountable or punished," Gascon said in a statement.

- Impunity -

"I am concerned that this may not be an isolated incident," Gascon said, adding he was taking up Dela Rosa's suggestion to undertake a "full review and audit" of all police prison facilities.

International rights monitor Human Rights Watch on Saturday also called on the Philippines to free all "unlawfully detained" suspects and abolish unofficial police lock-up cells.

"Secret jails may just be one more form of police criminality that has multiplied during the drug war," the group's deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said in a statement.

Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde has conceded that congested detention facilities are widespread.

After suspending the police officers involved, Albayalde also ordered police internal affairs service to investigate the detainees' allegations.

Duterte won last year's presidential election on a pledge to kill tens of thousands of criminals.

Police have since reported killing 2,724 people as part of Duterte's anti-drug campaign, although authorities insist the shootings have been in self defence.

Many thousands of others have been killed by shadowy vigilantes, according to rights groups.

Duterte briefly suspended all police from the crackdown in January after an official investigation found drug officers kidnapped a South Korean businessman and murdered him as part of an extortion scam.

At the time, Duterte described the police force as "corrupt to the core" and vowed it would not be allowed to prosecute the drug war until its ranks had been "cleansed".

But he redeployed police onto the drug war about a month later, without major reforms.