MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao may lead to the escalation of abuses under his regime, an international human rights watchdog said Friday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the declaration "threatens to widen the scope of abuses" under the Duterte administration.
"Duterte’s martial law threatens military abuses in Mindanao that could rival the murderous ‘drug war’ in urban areas," HRW deputy director for Asia Phelim Kine said in a statement.
"It’s crucial that the country’s security forces abide by international law at all times and hold rights violators to account," he added.
The administration has several times denied abuses in its war on drugs, saying those slain in police operations had resisted and that officers merely defended themselves.
Kine also reminded that the rule of law must prevail even as the government performed its duty to protect the population from armed militants.
"Martial law is not a free pass for abuse," he said.
Duterte placed the entire Mindanao group of islands under martial law on Tuesday following clashes between government troops and the terrorist Maute group in Marawi City.
Upon arriving from his shortened official visit in Russia where he made the announcement, the President said he was suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which would allow warrantless arrests.
The HRW said the imposition of martial law in the midst of Duterte's anti-drug drive "raises grave concerns of ever-widening human rights violations in the country."
Though it recognized that the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group "threaten the security of people in parts of Mindanao," the HRW said the imposition of martial law throughout the area could also affect the military's handling of other armed conflicts, such as the communist New People’s Army and Moro insurgent groups.
"Expanding the military’s legal authority in these conflicts opens the door to increased human rights violations against civilians, including leftist activists, indigenous leaders, and environmental activists, who have long been targets of military abuses," the organization said.
Under martial law, the Philippine military supersedes civilian authorities in enforcing the law, but the 1987 Constitution, crafted after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled, placed safeguards to prevent the repeat of the horrors of that time.
HRW has several times criticized the administration for alleged human rights abuses, particularly in pursuit of its war on drugs.
Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano defended the administration's war on drugs before the United Nations, denying the spate of extrajudicial killings as he explained that police only defended themselves in cases where drug suspects ended up dead in police operations.
He also told the world body that there was no new wave of killings, saying there was a low of 11,000 and a high of 16,000 killings annually under the Aquino administration.
Comparably, he said there were 2,692 deaths from presumed legitimate anti-drug police operations and 9,432 homicide cases in the first 9 months of the Duterte administration