A new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines “threaten the very values of freedom, respect, justice and compassion,” according to a leading bishop in the Philippines.
The House of Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 on Wednesday night after President Rodrigo Duterte urgently endorsed the legislation, despite fears it could threaten human rights and be used against his political opponents. The Senate passed its version in February.
Once signed into law by Duterte, the legislation will replace a 2007 anti-terror law called the Human Security Act which was rarely used, largely because law enforcers can be fined $9,800 for each day they wrongfully detain a terrorism suspect.
Lawmakers removed such safeguards in the new legislation, which increases the number of days that suspects can be detained without warrants from three to 24 and allows for the surveillance and wire-tapping of any individual on mere suspicion of being an alleged terrorist, even without any evidence of wrongdoing.
The majority-Catholic Philippines has long been plagued both a Muslim insurgency and Islamic rebels in the Muslim-majority south of the country.
However, human rights groups and social justice advocates have long complained about having their organizations labeled as communist fronts – known as “red tagging” in the Philippines – which can lead to warrantless arrest, detention without charges, torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings by rogue security forces.
“The bill is a glaring attempt to silence critics and destroy any disagreement against the government, and consequently stifles people’s freedom of expression, academic freedom, right to organize for human and social development, and even freedom of the press,” said Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo of Kidapawan, the National Director of NASSA/Caritas Philippines and chairman of the Commission on Social Action Justice and Peace at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Bagaforo said the new law could be used to target Caritas activists as they defend the rights and welfare of the Filipino people.
“We provide constant opposition to government actions when we see them unfit and unjust especially to indigenous peoples, peasants, fisher folks, women, children and all the other marginalized sectors,” he said in a June 5 statement.
The bishop said Caritas demands transparency and accountability from civil servants, especially in cases when the use of public funds and facilities, and the delivery of services are questionable, and pressures politicians, the police and government leaders when they perpetrate deliberate inaction and disregard of due process.
“We give decisive views and analyses of government actions, especially when we see them detrimental and threaten the very values of freedom, respect, justice and compassion, like the Anti-Terrorism Bill,” Bagaforo said.
“If what we do constitutes terror acts, then what else is not? If every dissent and opposition can be considered terrorism, who else will be free? If all the powerful in government can label anyone a terrorist, what else can they do? Activism is not terrorism,” he said.
The bishop said the anti-terrorism bill is inimical to the rights of every Filipino as enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
“We cannot let this happen. This not only intolerable, this is inhuman, unjust and unlawful. Thus we urge everyone to register opposition against the bill which, to our firm belief, will further re-enforce the power of tyranny and totalitarianism,” Bagaforo continued.
He said Caritas Philippines condemns “in the strongest terms” the blatant maneuvering of the legislative processes and the rule of law to suppress legitimate dissent, and to criminalize or to arbitrarily brand as terrorists those who are perceived to be opposing the administration.
“We denounce the obvious circumvention of the democratic processes just to obey and please the self-interests of the legislators and the autocratic rule of the president,” he said.
Ravina Shamdasani of the U.N. Human Rights office said the legislation defines terrorism broadly and allows officials to designate people as terrorists in provisions that “may violate the principle of legality under international law.”
“You add to this the context in the Philippines where a lot of human rights organizations are routinely labeled as terrorists, this is very worrying,” Shamdasani said in a June 4 online news conference on a new U.N. Human Rights Office report about threats to human rights in the Philippines.
A day earlier, Christian leaders of different denominations also wrote a letter condemning the bill.
The June 3 letter by the group One Faith, One Nation, One Voice complained about “overly broad and amorphous” use of the term “terrorism” in the legislation.
“We believe that the anti-terrorism bill will insidiously strip away respect for human rights and other civil liberties,” the letter said.
“This bill will cause a further shrinking of democratic space and weakening of public discourse that will be detrimental to our nation,” it continued.
The letter includes the signatures of the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, Bishop Broderick Pabillo and Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos.
“A thriving democracy upholds freedom of speech, the rights to assembly and association, the right to expression of beliefs, and other inalienable rights of our people,” the letter said.
The Christian leaders said the proposed law is “likely to be misused and abused by those who wish to ‘lord it over’ the Filipino people, obliterate opposition, and quell even the most legitimate dissent.”
They said called the Anti-Terrorism Bill “ominous with features that reek of the dark days” of the martial law imposed during the final 14 years of the 1965-1986 presidency of Ferdinand Marcos.
“The militarists have the ear and possibly the heart of the legislature,” letter said.
“We are speaking, even as we recognize that to do so is dangerous. For such a time as this, to remain silent only assures the impending destruction and abuse of our people,” they added.
Duterte has been at odds with the country’s Catholic Church since before he took office in 2016. Church leaders have condemned his bloody crackdown on the drug trade which has left thousands of people dead in extrajudicial killings, as well as his efforts to reintroduce the death penalty and legalize divorce.
This article incorporated material from the Associated Press.