Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed the contentious anti-terrorism draft into law on July 3. This draft has made many observers argue about how it will stifle dissent in the Philippines, and curb the liberty of its citizens and oppositions to question the government.
The Bill was passed in the Senate in February and in the House of Representatives in early June. Following this, the right supporters protested to seek a veto of the bill before the official presidential approval. However, Duterte administration fast-tracked the enaction of the counter-terrorism law in what can be seen as record time. Duterte certified it as an ‘urgent’ measure “to adequately and effectively contain the menace of terrorist acts for the preservation of national security and the promotion of general welfare.”
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The Philippine Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, among other things, approves President Duterte to designate a council of appointees who could order unwarranted arrests of individuals or groups under suspicion of inciting terrorism. “The signing of the law demonstrates our serious commitment to stamp out terrorism, which has long plagued the country and has caused unimaginable grief and horror to many of our people,” Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said. “The legislation is needed as current policies lack the teeth that are required given the current face of international terrorism,” he added.
Amending the 2007 Human Security Act in the Philippines, the new legislation defines the term ‘terrorism’ vaguely, which could endanger protestors and suppress their voices. “They (authorities) shouldn’t fool us that this terror bill is for terrorists. It’s for all of us who are protesting and dissenting,” said Neri Colmenares, an activist and lawyer.
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The Act defines terrorism as intending to cause death or injury to a person; damage or destruction of government, private and public property or critical infrastructure; developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying, or using weapons; inciting or intimidating the masses to destabilize the country.
It further allows appointed authorities to detain a suspect, without charging them, for up to twenty-four days before consulting the magistrate. The suspect can be placed under surveillance for sixty days, which can also be extended by up to thirty days, by the police or military. Those apprehended as a ‘terrorist’ will face twelve years’ imprisonment without parole. The legislation also exempts the existing law of penalizing law enforcement with PHP 500,000 (USD 10,334) for wrongfully detaining suspects.
The United Nations had called on President Duterte to refrain from signing the law. “The law could have a further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Critics argue that the new law encourages wrongful apprehension and safeguards malicious government activities. Filipinos, human rights activists, journalists, and artists raised their dissent against the new law on social media and via protests. Clad in masks and maintaining physical distancing, protestors took to the streets demanding the scrapping of the law holding placards saying “Junk Terror Bill” and “Activism is not terrorism”.
“What if people hold rallies against him, asking him to step down? Is that illegal? No. That’s a constitutional right. It’s not illegal for you to hold a rally asking the president to step down or resign. But under that [bill], they can interpret it that way,” said Colmenares.
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