To the surprise and disgust of many citizens, the Ombudsman on Monday cleared policemen from the Raxabago, Tondo precinct of criminal and administrative liability for their act of detaining 12 people in a narrow hidden cell in 2017, which the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) rightly denounced and brought to court. The Ombudsman dismissed for “lack of proof of bad faith” the raft of complaints (arbitrary detention, grave threats, grave coercion, grave misconduct, delay in the delivery of persons to the proper judicial authorities, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service) filed against several cops, led by station commander Police Supt. Robert Domingo.
The CHR should have shown that “there was another available confinement area which is better than the one where the detainees were locked up,” said the nine-page resolution by Deputy Ombudsman Cyril Ramos. Absent that, there was no proof “that respondents intentionally and maliciously refused to accord them such.”
“Lack of bad faith and malicious intent”? That conclusion flies in the face of pictures and video footage taken by the media who were with the CHR when it conducted its April 2017 surprise inspection of the hidden cell based on an informer’s tip.
The CHR team described the cell hidden behind a bookcase as “cramped, dingy and fetid” and that 12 detainees—three of them women—were packed in the 1 x 5-meter space, which had only one ceiling fan and one male urinal, forcing the detainees to defecate in plastic bags. Photos and video clips of the closet-sized cell showed that it had no light and windows.
Then CHR Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit also noted that, contrary to mandated police procedure, the detainees’ names were not logged in the station’s logbook. Some of them claimed being beaten and electrocuted with a taser, arrested without warrant, and extorted sums from P12,000 to P50,000 in exchange for their release.
But the Ombudsman apparently chose to believe the police’s narrative over the concrete pictorial proof and the CHR’s eyewitness testimony. Domingo’s defense was that the hidden cell, or “holding room” as he described it, “has sufficient lighting, ventilation water supply, and urinals.” He insisted that the cell was not “secret” because it supposedly had a visible separate entrance from Capulong Street, and that the bookcase covering it was meant to be “a partition.” (Shouldn’t the fact that the cops went to deliberate lengths to conceal the cell already count as “bad faith”?) A “lack of resources” forced the police to be “resourceful” in carving out an improvised cell as the station jail could hold only 40 detainees, added the station commander; when the CHR came, the precinct had 78 people in custody.
As for the names of the detainees not being recorded, Domingo claimed they were arrested just hours before in “a one time-big time” drug operation and had yet to undergo inquest proceedings.
The Ombudsman also made much of the retracted statements of torture and extortion from the detainees, as if the inhuman conditions of the secret cell were not torture enough, or that the prospect of being arrested anew or harassed by the police was not a possibility that would intimidate hapless civilians into withdrawing their case.
Oddly, the ruling came to light only this week, just days before Ramos retires on May 6, when the joint resolution was dated July 28, 2020 and approved on Dec. 22, 2020. Will the CHR’s motion for reconsideration, filed in February 2021 but still unanswered, find itself buried and ignored now that the resolution’s main author would have been safely ensconced in retirement and not duty-bound to defend his decision?
Under the present dispensation, the Office of the Ombudsman has seen a marked decline in the number of cases filed and processed. On his first year as Ombudsman in 2018, Duterte appointee Samuel Martires filed only 739 cases, compared to the 2,513 cases filed in 2017. The number dived to 198 in 2019, and sank even lower when the pandemic hit in 2020. The shocking exoneration of the cops in this case does not bode well for the Ombudsman’s record and its larger commitment to do its job of pursuing wrongdoing by public officials. (Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite: “Impunity has been bolstered yet again.”)
In appealing the ruling, the CHR noted that the dismissal was a “setback… in efforts to stop police abuse.” Urging the Ombudsman to review its decision, the CHR said that it was “crucial” that the two agencies “work together in ensuring that grave abuses are held to account to prevent them from happening again,” and that “we preserve the faith of the people in the rule of law by demonstrating with resolve that justice can ultimately prevail.” That is the fervent wish of every law-abiding Filipino—thwarted mystifyingly, in this case, by the Ombudsman.
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