MANILA - The fundamental principle of the campaign against terrorism must be respect for human rights, a petitioner said Thursday, as the Supreme Court has begun oral arguments on the contentious anti-terror law.
"I don't have a problem with the government [in] having strong policies and strategies on fighting terrorism," lawyer Jojo Lacanilao, co-convenor of the group Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties, told ANC. "But the bedrock on this war on terrorism must be protection of human rights and protection of bill of rights."
The Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties, a network of lawyers opposed to violations of people's civil liberties and constitutional rights, challenged the validity of the law in a petition filed in August 2020— among several now pending before the high court.
Lacanilao said the Supreme Court may not wait for an actual injury before acting on petitions against the new law, which grants state forces sweeping powers to address terrorism. Petitioners have questioned its provisions that they say could lead to human rights abuses.
"This law is very pernicious to our bill of rights. We can't allow it to persist longer than it should be," he said.
Republic Act 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is one of the most assailed laws in the 1987 Constitution, facing a total of 37 petitions at the high court.
The lawyers' group raised concerns on the supposed vagueness and overbreadth of the provisions of the law.
A measure is considered vague if it lacks comprehensible standards that leaves citizens guessing in meaning and scope of application, while it is too broad if it unnecessarily covers protected freedoms.
Lacanilao also questioned the power granted to the Anti-Terrorism Council, composed of President Rodrigo Duterte's Cabinet, to authorize arrests of individuals or groups without charge on the basis of suspicion of involvement in terrorism.
"So, it's not far-fetched to think that this process may be politicized. In other words, you're prosecuting not based on the cases but on the individuals to prosecute," he said.
"That may be the result of this. When you allow non-independent, political officials to actually decide on a very, very legal and judicial matter."
The process, he stressed, does away with the determination of probable cause, which the Charter exclusively granted to judges.
While he supports the state on stamping out terrorism, he said such action must ensure respect to human rights.
"Nobody is taking away the power of the state for self-defense. The state can actually pursue strategies and actions that will have to protect itself from terrorism," he said.
"Terrorism is bad. It's a criminal act. It must be removed and eliminated. We all agree with that and we support the state in doing that within legal boundaries. But the bedrock of these efforts must be the protection of human rights."
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the anti-terror law in July 2020 despite heavy opposition over fears it could be used to crack down on dissent.
Among the law's contentious provisions includes warrantless arrest, prolonged detention without charges and the designation of any person or group as terrorists.
The high tribunal is expected to resume its oral arguments on Tuesday.