Manila (AFP) - A dozen people have been found stuffed inside a closet-sized cell hidden behind a book shelf in a Philippine police station, triggering further alarm about abuse under President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs.
Members of the government's human rights commission, accompanied by journalists, found the men and women in a surprise visit to the station in the heart of Manila's slum area on Thursday evening.
Cries of "here we are, here we are" were heard from behind a wall, according to the rights workers and journalists. The rights workers then found a hidden door behind a bookshelf, leading to the cell.
Stunned detainees came stumbling out of the room, some begging for water while others, in tears, pleaded with the rights workers not to abandon them.
The detainees said they had been held for about a week after being arrested on allegations of drug use or trafficking and that police had demanded hefty payments in exchange for their freedom.
"They were picked up on the pretext of drugs but they had not filed any charges against them," Gilbert Boisner, Manila director for the rights commission who led the inspection, told AFP on Friday.
Human Rights Watch said the incident was another sign of widespread rights abuse under Duterte's war on drugs, which has seen thousands of drug suspects killed either by policemen or mysterious vigilantes.
"The discovery of the secret jail is just the latest sign of how police are exploiting Duterte?s abusive anti-drug campaign for personal gain," a Human Rights Watch statement said.
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.
- 'Corrupt to the core' -
Duterte described the police force then as "corrupt to the core" and vowed it would not be allowed to prosecute the drug war till its ranks had been "cleansed".
Duterte said back then that nearly 40 percent of the police force engaged in illegal activities.
But he redeployed police onto the drug war about a month later, without major reforms.
Rights groups have questioned his sincerity in wanting to cleanse the police force, citing his promise to pardon officers if they are found guilty of murder for killing in his drug war.
Police have 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.
A Philippine lawyer on Monday filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
- Rights disdain -
Global rights monitor Amnesty International released a report in February warning that the killings in the drug war may amount to a crime against humanity.
It accused police of fatally shooting defenceless people, fabricating evidence, paying assassins to murder drug addicts and stealing from those they killed or the victims' kin.
The Manila police station commander in charge of the "secret cell", Superintendent Robert Domingo, told reporters at the scene on Thursday the detainees were arrested only the previous night.
But he was suspended on Friday pending an investigation, the head of the capital's police force, Director Oscar Albayalde, said in a statement as he conceded that improper detentions were widespread.
"We must recognise that this problem is not just in one police station but almost in all our stations region-wide," Albayalde said.
The incident occurred as Duterte began welcoming Southeast Asian leaders for a summit in Manila.
Speaking to reporters shortly after meeting Brunei's Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, Duterte used typically defiant language as he defended his drug war and repeated his disdain for human rights.
"You know human rights (campaigners), I am not a worker for human rights," Duterte said, after branding The New York Times newspaper an "asshole" for criticising his drug war tactics.