The bishops’ conference in the Philippines have compared the country’s recently signed anti-terrorism law to a new security law imposed on Hong Kong, warning it “creates an atmosphere detrimental to the freedom of expression in our country.”
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act on July 3, replacing a 2007 law which had imposed fines for law enforcement personnel that wrongfully detained terror suspects.
The new law has no such penalties and allows the detention of suspects for up to 24 days without charge and gives the government wider surveillance powers.
Security officials said the new law was needed to fight ongoing Islamist and Communist insurgencies affecting different parts of the country.
“We are still in disbelief about the manner in which the contentious Anti-Terror Bill was fast-tracked and approved in both Houses of Congress while the whole country’s attention was focused on the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David of Kalookan, the acting president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, wrote on July 19.
“They did not even seem to care that many of the people they represent were against it—lawyers’ associations, the academe, the business sector, labor groups, youth organizations, NGO’s, political movements, faith-based communities, and even the Bangsamoro [a Muslim majority autonomous region] government,” he continued
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.
David alluded to these concerns in his letter.
“Have we not heard of people active in social advocacies who are accused of being communists? Have we forgotten the bishops, priests and religious who were included among those falsely charged by the Philippine National Police with crimes of sedition and inciting to sedition? Are we not aware of the thousands of people who have been killed in police operations on the basis of mere suspicion of involvement in criminality and illegal drugs?” the bishop asked.
“The dissenting voices were strong but they remained unheeded. None of the serious concerns that they expressed about this legislative measure seemed to be of any consequence to them. Alas, the political pressure from above seemed to weigh more heavily on our legislators than the voices from below. It only made more evident the blurring of lines between legislative and the executive branches of our government,” David said.
The Duterte regime 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.
More recently, the bishops raised the alarm after the nation’s largest independent broadcaster, ABS-CBN, had its broadcast license revoked by the Philippine Congress.
David called said the closure of the broadcaster had a “chilling effect” that was part of a “pattern of intimidation creates an atmosphere detrimental to the freedom of expression in our country.”
“While a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water,” warned the president of the bishops’ conference.
He said the bishops “draw encouragement from the belief” that good people in the government remain objective and independent minded,” but added the Church “wish that there would be more of them.”
David also noted the similarities between the new law in the Philippines and the security law imposed on Hong Kong by the Beijing government.
“Apparently, the Chinese government assures the people of Hong Kong that they have nothing to be afraid of, as long as ‘they don’t get involved in any activity that threatens national security.’ Why does this sound eerily familiar to us Filipinos? Because we are in a similar situation,” the bishop said.
“We know full well that it is one thing to be actually involved in a crime and another thing to be merely suspected or accused of committing a crime,” David said.
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