James G. D. Villasis, Philippines
In the time of pandemic when millions of Filipinos are anxiously locked down in their homes, the Philippine government came like a thief in the night. It was in the eve of the 3rd of June when the Congress – the country’s highest lawmaking body – railroaded the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill under President Duterte’s wish in the name of the blanket yet ambiguous terms of national security and general welfare.
With the present regime’s muddied human rights reputation, the draft law sounded an alarm. To most civil society and human rights groups, this will further bolster the government’s ammunition to ‘legitimately’ silence its critics who go against their way. It must be recalled that under President Duterte’s watch, the National Police and the Military had weaponized rebellion, sedition, defamation, and anti-narcotics laws to run after dissenters – some of them ended up in jail while others were killed, forever silenced.
The Bill is now on the President’s table, waiting for him to stamp his approval to make it effective. Considering that it was no less than the President himself who commanded his allies in the chambers of the Congress for its immediate passage, there is no doubt that this will become a law anytime soon. When that day arrives, the much-valued, hard-earned civil liberties hang in the balance under the scale of rather broad and vague anti-terrorism measures.
To be clear, acts of terrorism should be condemned in the strongest method possible. The State is justified in curbing this evil and punishing its perpetrators, but it should be done carefully and prudently. An excessive and disproportionate intrusion into an individual’s liberty and rights cannot be justified on such a basis alone.
However ironic it may be, the texts of the Anti-Terrorism Bill itself bear some terrorizing provisions thereby posing a threat to any person – innocent included. It has broadly expanded the definition of what constitutes terrorism. The measure bloats the term to the point of obscurity. On its provision, it has defined terrorism as “acts designed to intimidate the general public or any of its segment, create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear, to 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”. By this definition, a crime like murder will now be penalized with a higher period of lifetime incarceration without the benefit of parole. The only task for the government is to prove that the killing created an atmosphere of fear. Such is equivocal.
This also punishes people who ‘incite’ others to commit terrorism by means of expression in whatever form. Any person who is likewise found to be a member of an organization designated as a terrorist group will be apprehended. The suspect will be subject to detention from 14 to 24 days without a warrant or a formal charge before the court. It takes a mere suspicion for the government to legitimately incarcerate a person for acts of terrorism, inciting to commit terrorism, or membership to a designated terrorist organization.
The draft law proposes the creation of an Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), the members of which are to be appointed solely by the President. After its creation, the ATC will wield so much power. The council can designate any organization as a terrorist group under its own rules and standards. If a group, which may be legitimate human rights or humanitarian organization, is designated as such it will be the subject of intrusive government sanctions like surveillance, wire-tapping, the examination of bank deposits, and seizure and forfeiture of assets. Not to mention that its members, including those who merely donated funds to the cause of these organizations, will be detained without a warrant.
The Anti-Terrorism Bill also breeds a culture of impunity among law enforcers. Under the present order, a person or organization whose assets have been seized or have been imprisoned but was later on found by the court to be innocent for the acts of terrorism are entitled to a P500,000.00 (10,000.00USD) damages. This is for each day that the property was held under government custody or the person is imprisoned. Officers who delay the issuance of the award will be imprisoned for six months. This safeguard was effectively removed by the draft law. The government and its agents will no longer be accountable for any malicious imprisonment of persons and forfeiture of assets.
The wide latitude of power and discretion embedded within the text of the draft law provides for a double-edged sword to the government. First, it can legitimately pursue persons and organizations, which according to its standard and suspicion, are engaged in acts of terrorism. Second, it creates a chilling effect and fear to the people who are now afraid of possible future punishment. It is immaterial under both circumstances whether those personal acts are in accordance with individual freedom and rights. What is material is the shadowed and obscured determination of the government based on its sole judgment.
The grant of those powers coupled with discretion will lead to the further shrinkage of the democratic space in the Philippines. If placed in the hands of a regime that has despotic tendencies, the draft law will indubitably cause the further regression of the cherished democratic values. Death of Philippine democracy is the only logical and inescapable conclusion. Until then, the only recourse of the people is to utilize what remains of their freedom and to push back against this terror.
Photo from Bulatlat.com
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.