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Detainees are pictured inside a hidden room at a police station in Manila, Philippines April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Go

(reuters_tickers)

By Manolo Serapio Jr

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday he will look into the illegal detention of drug suspects at a secret cell in a Manila police station that has raised new questions about police conduct in his war on drugs.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said it discovered the cell on Thursday, after a tip-off, at a police station in Manila's Tondo district, a hotbed of drug-war killings.

The group said it found 12 people being held without charge, crammed into a tiny, dark, windowless room. The entrance was hidden by a wooden cabinet.

Police on Friday sacked the station's chief and launched an investigation, the latest inquiry into the behaviour of a force which is coming under intense criticism for a litany of alleged abuses of power during Duterte's war on drugs.

"I will look into this," Duterte told reporters, adding he would talk to national police chief Ronald dela Rosa about it.

Jacqueline de Guia, a lawyer and CHR spokeswoman, said those inside the cell had been held without charge for at least a week.

She cited them as saying police were trying to extort money from them, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 pesos ($400 to $4,000). Some detainees also said 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.

Congressman Harry Roque said he would call for the House of Representatives to investigate when its session resumes on Tuesday.

"I find it profoundly disturbing that these men and women were illegally detained – because there appears to be no records of their arrest – and subjected to cruel, degrading, and inhumane conditions," Roque said in a statement.

'EYE OPENER'

Regional police chief, Oscar Albayalde, said the Tondo police chief had been sacked along with about 10 other policemen 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.

($1 = 50.1150 Philippine pesos)

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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