MANILA - Philippine police sacked the chief of a Manila police station on Friday and launched an investigation after a human rights group responding to a tip-off found a secret cell that was illegally holding drug suspects without charge.
The discovery of the cell will raise more questions about the Philippine National Police (PNP), which is coming under intense criticism for a litany of alleged abuses of power during President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said it showed up late on Thursday at the police station in Manila's Tondo district, a hotbed of drug-war killings, and discovered 12 people crammed in a tiny, dark, windowless room.
The entrance was hidden by a wooden cabinet.
Those inside had been held without charge for at least a week and said police were trying to extort money from them, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 pesos ($400 to $4,000), said lawyer Jacqueline de Guia, a CHR spokeswoman.
Some detainees also alleged they had been tortured, de Guia said.
"It is definitely a matter of concern because these practices are not the norm," she said, adding the commission was investigating whether charges would be filed against the police involved.
Regional police chief, Oscar Albayalde, said the Tondo police chief had been sacked and an investigation was underway. He thanked the CHR and said the discovery was an "eye opener".
"Rest assured that we have in mind the best interest of the community and we will not tolerate any illegal act committed by our policemen," Albayalde said in a statement.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella commended police for"acting decisively" to remove the officer in charge.
Thousands of Filipinos have been killed since Duterte unleashed his campaign against drugs nearly 10 months ago. Police say they have killed only in self-defence, and the deaths of other dealers and users was down to vigilantes or gangs silencing informants.
Activists say police accounts are implausible and accuse Duterte of supporting a campaign of systematic extrajudicial killings by police. Police and the government deny that.
"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," said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Duterte said on Thursday he was willing to face the music over his war on drugs and a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court would not stop his campaign.
The discovery follows a April 18 Reuters report in which two policemen, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said police received cash for killing drug suspects, planted evidence at crime scenes and carried out most of the killings police blame on vigilantes.
One of the men authored an unpublished 26-page report with detail on the alleged methods deployed in the drug war, the campaign's masterminds and perpetrators.
It contained no documentary evidence. The government dismissed the claims.