MANILA—A new bill granting Philippine state forces sweeping powers against terrorists has sparked fears that it may be also used to crack down on legitimate dissent under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte himself sought the swift passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 while the country is still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened nearly 19,000 people and killed more than 960 of them in the country.
The proposed law will add more muscle to the Human Security Act of 2007, which has been rendered “obsolete” as terrorist groups such as ISIS have since adopted new strategies to spread violent extremism, said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research.
“The current face of terror in the Philippines has changed,” he told ABS-CBN News, citing the new trend of suicide attacks mounted by homegrown terrorists especially after the siege of Marawi City in 2017.
Massive recruitment and terrorist propaganda by violent extremists on social media, for instance, have caught the government “flat-footed” and the 13-year-old law had “no power to address the new situation,” he said.
But Banlaoi, who provided inputs in the crafting of the bill, admitted it could also be used against groups allegedly fronting for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).
“If you’re a member of the NPA or a sympathizer of the communist movement, you will really be targeted under the current government,” he said.
GOV’T CRITICS IN DANGER?
In late 2017, Duterte declared the CPP-NPA as terrorist organizations as negotiations to end 50 years of Maoist rebellion, waged mostly in the Philippine countryside, bogged down.
Lawyer Edre Olalia warned that proposed amendments to the anti-terrorism law should worry “practically everyone who does not toe the official line or is not on the emperor's favor.”
Particularly worrisome, he said, is the provision on “inciting to commit terrorism,” which seeks to jail anyone who would commit the crime “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations.”
“It will terrorize targeted critics, dissenters and social advocates more than the real terrorists with unbridled state power and prejudice through subjective definitions, arbitrary arrests, and extended detentions,” he said.
Human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno said the new crime was susceptible to being applied broadly to critics of government.
The fear is driven in large part by the Duterte administration’s use of existing law against sedition to go after opposition figures such as Vice President Leni Robredo, accusing them of seeking to topple him.
Last year, Malacañang released a “matrix,” earlier fashioned as a news report written by Duterte envoy Dante Ang, claiming certain journalists were conspiring with leftist organizations to oust the president. The diagram included Olalia’s National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL).
Palace spokesman Harry Roque on Tuesday denied there was any "draconian" provision in the new set of amendments, saying they were based on anti-terrorism laws in other countries.
Details of what constitute terrorism under the bill have worried human rights lawyers, who noted how the new definition “swivels” from “its effects upon the people toward its effect upon the government.”
“The danger lies with how the government can construe legitimate acts of dissent or opposition within these definitions,” according to the group Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties.
“It gives the government almost free rein in determining who are suspected terrorists. Even ordinary citizens airing their grievances against government on social media may fall within its ambit.”
Under Section 4 of the bill, terrorism is also committed by releasing “dangerous substances or causing fire, floods or explosions” meant to “intimidate the general public or a segment thereof” or “create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear to provoke or influence by intimidation the government...”
Terrorism does not include “advocacy, protest, dissent... and other similar exercise of civil and political rights” not meant to “cause death or serious physical harm... or create a serious risk to public safety.”
Olalia said the safeguard was “nice and good only on paper,” citing instances where people were arrested and slapped with “manufactured evidence produced by coached witnesses.”
“You can argue and invoke it but before you get released or acquitted, if at all, you have lost years of your life and you have been publicly stigmatized,” he said.
Also raising alarm were the broad powers granted to the 9-member Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), which could designate individuals or groups as terrorists “upon finding of probable cause.”
Such “terrorists” can be detained without warrant within 14 days and whose assets may be frozen, under the proposed law.
“Because the power to ‘designate’ and to detain can easily be abused or misused, it should be given only to the courts, not the ATC, since judges are impartial, objective, and independent of the executive branch,” said Diokno.
The ATC, headed by the executive secretary, may also authorize “any law enforcement agent or military personnel” to take custody of “a person suspected of committing any of the acts” under terrorism as defined in the bill.
A provision allowing courts to issue “preliminary orders of proscription” will also be a “shortcut” of judicial processes, said Olalia.
The preliminary order, issued based on probable cause and “necessary to prevent the commission of terrorism,” can keep a person facing charges for up to 6 months, during which the court will conduct hearings determine if the order should be made permanent.
The bill removes a key safeguard against state abuse in the present law, which imposes a P500,000 fine for each day that a terror suspect is wrongfully detained.
Banlaoi said the penalty was preventing police from using the Human Security Act against terrorists.
“Many were afraid because it wasn’t clear in the law who would shoulder the amount, the arresting officer or the PNP,” he said.
The bill imposes a 10-year jail term on law enforcers violating detainees’ rights.
Custodial logbooks are also considered public documents and should be made available to a detainee’s family, lawyer, or doctor.
Torture and other forms of inhumane treatment during investigation and interrogation will be “absolutely prohibited” under the bill.
“While there is an urgent need to enact a robust anti-terrorism law, Congress cannot ignore the fact that Filipinos deserve and expect a dedicated law enforcement unit that can truly and professionally protect the state and the people from terrorism,” lawyer Michael Henry Yusingco, senior fellow at the Ateneo School of Government, wrote in March.