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DILG vows no abuse of anti-terror law; insists rallyists and rebels have 'same intent'

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
DILG vows no abuse of anti-terror law; insists rallyists and rebels have 'same intent'
DILG spokesman Jonathan Malaya defended the anti-terrorism bill on Wednesday.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — Amid concerns that the anti-terrorism bill could be used to silence legal dissent, the Department of Interior and Local Government on Wednesday said that the existing body of laws in the country had enough safeguards to combat any possible abuse. 

This was told to reporters on the sidelines of the Talking ASEAN on “Preventing Violent Extremism through Good Governance and Rule of Law” forum organized by think tank Stratbase ADR Institute and The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program in Makati City. 

Asked about the concerns of a number of groups that the new bill would allow the state to indiscriminately crack down on legal organizations, DILG Undersecretary for Plans, Public Affairs and Communication Jonathan Malaya, also department spokesperson, said the bill is meant to pattern the country's Human Security Act after those of neighboring nations. 

"I think there are enough safeguards in the law to make sure na hindi yan. We actually congratulate the Senate and thank them for the passage of this amendment to the Human Security Act," Malaya said. 

Although he did not elaborate on those safeguards, Malaya said during the forum that the DILG under the leadership of Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has now been more proactive about disciplining and keeping LGUs accountable.

Año, though,last year called for the revival of the Cold War-era Anti-Subversion Law, saying "leftist groups should be banned for being subversive and illegal."

READ: The Anti-Subversion Law, explained

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, in response, said "being leftist is far from being terrorist."

"As long as activism remains in the realm of ideology, there is nothing to be alarmed about," he also said. 

The Justice secretary said that strengthening the Human Security Act, the country's anti-terror law, would be a better approach.

'Criminalizing legal acts'

Last Wednesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1083 or the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which amended certain provisions of the Human Security Act of 2007. 

Under the bill, anyone suspected of being terrorist can be detained without a warrant for up to 24 days.

Groups opposed to the bill say it will allow the administration to criminalize legal exercises of free speech and peaceful assembly given the current government strategy of accusing activist groups of being front organizations for communist rebels.

In an earlier statement, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said SB 1083 “criminalizes acts which have, traditionally, been considered legitimate exercises of free speech, freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association."

As it stands, activists already often express fear over what they call a de facto martial law in the country after President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order 70, creating the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and instituting a whole of nation approach against insurgency. 

READ: Duterte signs ‘whole-of-nation‘ EO vs insurgency

Activists have said that this has led to government moves against legal organizations under the guise of counter-insurgency, though Malaya cited EO 70 as among the initiatives against violent extremism.

"Both threats to our country are to be addressed by the amendments," Malaya said. 

'Legal, rebel groups have same intent'

Asked if the new bill conflated legal activist groups with communist rebels, Malaya said: "I don't think so. I think the position of the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] is valid, there are indeed communist terrorist groups."

Among the organizations tagged as communist front organizations rights watchdog Karapatan and church group Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, as well as Lumad schools run by the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development and Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center Inc.

READ: Karapatan say rights workers under surveillance, being harassed | IBON asks ombudsman to ‘punish’ Duterte admin officials for red-tagging

"Itong mga legal fronts na ito, they operate as if they are cooperating with government or are just critics of the government, when in fact, they have an ideology," he said.

"Alam naman ng lahat yan (Everybody knows that), that there are above-ground organizations considered legal fronts. Both have the same intent, which is to overthrow the government. They wish to overthrow the government in order to implement their ideology in the country. I think that's also a threat to the state."

Protesting or being a member of an activist group is not the same thing as being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines or of the New People's Army. 

READ: CHR warns of grave implications of red-tagging groups

"If you're just expressing criticism, that's part of democracy. Wala namang problema doon. But the problem comes when you are part of an organization," he said.

Although he did not specify how administration agents would go about distinguishing the two, he assured the public that the government would first have to draw a firm distinction before pursuing a case against suspected communist elements. 

"The rule of law in this respect is being followed," he said. 

"We have to make that distinction. Whenever an arrest is made, the government has to establish someone's crime."

READ: How activists respond to being tagged as rebels

"Wala namang subversion law ngayon," he added. 

'Red-tagging'

Philippine jurisprudence defines red-tagging as "the act of labelling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy… by state agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies’ of the state."

The Commission on Human Rights in April said that labelling groups before an objective judgment violates the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence.

In an interview in August, Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares stressed that criticizing the government, or even agreeing with the CPP-NPA on certain issues, is not the same thing as taking up arms against the government.

RELATED: Bayan Muna, Anakbayan deny recruiting members for NPA

"You don't lump the opposition with armed combatants just because they espouse similar issues," he said. — with report from Gaea Katreena Cabico

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