A protest near Malacañang during last year’s International Human Rights Day. Photo by Gerard Carreon, AP
Culture Spotlight

The anti-terror bill and the tough questions it’s raising

What’s concerning about the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 are the tremendous new powers given to government agencies, except to the Commission on Human Rights. By FELIPE F. SALVOSA II
ANCX | Jun 04 2020

The government is about to get hold of the broadest powers against terrorism since the Human Security Act was enacted in 2007. The passage of identical bills, first deliberated in the Senate late last year and copied in toto by the House this week, short-circuits the usually tedious bicameral process and all but guarantees the President’s signature on the “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020” before the month ends.

Debate over anti-terror legislation has often centered on the definition of “terrorism,” and the bill vastly expands it. Senate Bill 1083 and House Bill 6875 state that terrorism is committed by any person “within or outside the Philippines, regardless of the stage of execution.”

Terrorists are those who cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person’s life; cause extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place or private property; cause extensive interference with, damage or destruction to critical infrastructure; develop, manufacture, possess, acquire, transport,  supply  or use weapons, explosives or of biological, nuclear, radiological or chemical weapons; and release dangerous substances, or cause fire, floods or explosions.

Terrorist acts, punishable with a life sentence without parole, must have a purpose: to “intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any of its international organization, or seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures of the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety.”

The new definition is in line with the latest anti-terrorism conventions which an American scholar, Roger Douglas, says has two elements: harm and purpose. This means a sole motivation to coerce the government is no longer necessary.

Foreign terrorists may also be charged when they set foot on Philippine soil, to make sure the country does not become a haven for extremists. A further expansion is the inclusion of the acts of planning or conspiring to commit terrorism and the recruitment of terrorists, punishable with life in prison; and making threats, proposals or incitement to commit terrorism, punishable with 12 years in prison.

Context is important. The Human Security Act was largely in response to Al-Qaeda-linked extremism in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda is gone and under its successor, the Islamic State (IS), terrorism has become more transnational, especially after the latter’s defeat and the subsequent dispersal of IS-trained or IS-linked agents, some of whom have penetrated the country’s southern backdoor.

Sponsors of the bill in the Senate, where real and substantive deliberations took place beginning October 2019, also sought to make it easier for law enforcers to prosecute terrorists. The sponsors, Senators Panfilo Lacson and Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, both ex-national police chiefs, cited instances in which terror suspects were charged with murder, not terrorism, or were let go.

The Human Security Act required police investigators to prove not just the crimes that took place, such as murder, but also that the suspects were motivated by a desire to coerce the government to accede to an unlawful demand. Moreover, there is a fine of P500,000 per day, to be charged on the police budget, in case terrorism charges are dismissed or the suspects are acquitted.

“Only in the Philippines — as the expression goes — where the anti-terror law has literally more provisions restricting our law enforcers than bringing terrorists to justice. That is not an exaggeration,” Lacson said in his October 2 sponsorship speech.

Lacson argued that while terrorists could be charged in four instances under the Human Security Act – terrorism, conspiracy, and as an accomplice or accessory – law enforcers could be charged in 20 instances. As a result, the police tiptoed around or avoided the law altogether. In 2018, Lacson noted, only murder charges were filed against 18 suspects in a suicide car blast at a checkpoint in Lamitan, Basilan, which killed 10 people, including militiamen.

Dela Rosa also appealed for a longer detention period without an arrest warrant, citing the case of a Filipino bombmaker, Mohammed Reza Kiram. Dela Rosa said Davao City police arrested the Al-Qaeda-trained Kiram in 2013, but had to let go of him because investigators could not cobble together a quick case. Kiram went on to travel to Syria, pledge support to the IS, and record a viral beheading video in 2016.

Apart from the redefinition of terrorism, the anti-terror bill removes the P500,000 daily fine and sets the detention period at 14 days, extendible by 10 days. To compare, Malaysia allows 59 days and Singapore, two years.

The question that needs to be asked is, has the status quo become untenable so as to swing the pendulum to the extreme?

While everyone agrees to the need to crush terrorism, what’s concerning about the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 are the tremendous new powers to be given to government agencies, except to the Commission on Human Rights, which gets a token mention.

It will create an Anti-Terrorism Council, composed entirely of cabinet officials, tasked to “prevent” terrorist acts by designating individuals, groups, organizations or associations as terrorists, on “probable cause” that they have committed or attempted to commit terrorism. Their assets will also be frozen under anti-money-laundering rules.

In addition, the Department of Justice may trigger, prior to any hearing, the preliminary “proscription” or ban of “any group of persons, organization or association, upon approval by the Court of Appeals, also on “probable cause,” a legal standard that’s just a hair above mere suspicion. The hearings come after the preliminary proscription, which may or may not become permanent.

Surveillance activities, such as wiretapping, electronic eavesdropping into private conversations or messages, and by any means scientifically possible, will be extended to 90 days from 60 days.

Only two senators voted “no” to the bill on third reading on February 26 – Francis Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros. At the House, it was 173-31 and 29 abstain votes. A sponsor of the measure, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, could not in good conscience let the railroading happen, and stood on the tracks even if the train ran him over. Biazon switched to “no.”

The need to help law enforcers prosecute terrorists is understandable. Why would it require 24 days to detain suspects without a judicial warrant, however, or 90 days to do electronic surveillance on them? Why not 10 and 60 days, respectively? Would there be a real difference? The bar for terrorism having been lowered, what are the safeguards against abuse in the process of designating individuals and groups as terrorists, and in outlawing them? How could the tough standards for the prosecution of terrorists be balanced with better intelligence, coordination, case buildup and mobilization of law enforcement, which may or may not require more budgetary resources? Is this bill going too far?

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Again, context is important. Filipinos are reeling from the socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and government response is struggling, to say the least.

This bill, when signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte, will be implemented by a regime dominated by ex-uniformed, shoot-first-ask-later men, and carried out by a police force already sullied by the deadly drug war and tainted further by the heavy-handed implementation of lockdown measures amid the coronavirus outbreak.

These are widely held concerns that should be taken seriously in any deliberative body of a democratic society, and should by no means be taken as a stance supportive of terrorists and their evil acts. (This has to be said given the polluted nature of political debate in this country.)

Unfortunately, there could be no more discussions on this bill as questions and dissenting voices were drowned out by the viva voce voting in the “House of the People” this week.