Muslim Filipinos at most risk from anti-terrorism bill 'overreach, abuse'

Jonathan de Santos - Philstar.com
Muslim Filipinos at most risk from anti-terrorism bill 'overreach, abuse'
Handout photo shows Unicef regional director for Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof and Unicef Philippines representative Oyun Dendevnorov (middle, front row) with the Unicef staff and Bangsamoro youth representatives at the Bangsamoro Transition Authority Parliament. The event commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and World Children’s Day.

MANILA, Philippines — The anti-terrorism bill — which lawyers, civil society groups and the academe have warned could lead to abuse by the government — has largely excluded the concerns and experiences of Muslim Filipinos who are the most affected by terrorism and by counter-terrorist operations.

Speaking on "The Usual Suspects: Counter-terrorism in Moro Communities", a webinar hosted by lawyer Al Amin Julkipli on Saturday, members of the Moro community pointed out that they have been victims of torture and prolonged detention even before the Human Security Act of 2007, the law that the proposed anti-terror bill seeks to replace and that the Palace has described as lenient.

Lawyer Anna Tarhata Basman, a member of parliament in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority and who helped organize the talk, said that the context of marginalized communities was "largely absent" in the discussion on the bill.

"Overall, this is a problematic omission [because] it is the Muslim communities that have been hurt the most by terrorism in this country. It is also the Muslim community that will likewise suffer the overreach and abuse [if the bill becomes a law]," she said.

Abuse despite safeguards

Basman noted that lawmakers have assured the public that there are safeguards against abuse in the law but she also said that Muslims in the Philippines are already exposed to abuse, profiling, raids, prolonged detentions and protracted trials even without the anti-terrorism bill and even if the goverment is obligated to uphold human rights.

Lawyer Musa Malayang, who helped organize the Muslim Legal Assistance Foundation in the early 2000s, said he and other Muslim lawyers had to organize even before passage of the HSA because many Muslim groups were being raided and people were being arrested.

"Those groups were preaching about Islam but authorities made it seem like they were engaged in terrorism," he said.

Julie Alipala, a Zamboanga City-based journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said that security has always been tight in areas she has been covering.

"The strict quarantine we are experiencing now? They have been on lockdown for a long time," she said, adding that instances of mistaken identity are difficult to report because of the restrictions and because many are in far-flung areas where communication is a challenge.

She recalled a case in 2018 where seven farmers were killed and the military claimed they were members of the Abu Sayyaf. Information from the community later disputed the claim, with the farmers' families saying they were only out to pick fruits from their farm.

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"The issue here is it is easy for the military to do that to a family," Alipala, who was accused of being a terrorist sympathizer for reporting the community's side of the story, said. 

She also said that an illiterate 'habal-habal' driver has been repeatedly arrested and accused of involvement in bombing only to be quietly released later on.

Lawyer Laisa Alamia, minority floor leader of the Bangsamoro parliament, corroborated the story, saying the driver had been picked up many times although authorities changed his name each time.

"This has happened before, people just suddenly disappear. We find out later that they were taken by state forces. Their families did not even know," she said.

Welfare of detained

Detainees have also been deprived of access to medical services, Dr. Sherjan Kalim, a pathologist trained at the UP Philippine General Hospital, said.

Kalim, who works with the Medical Action Group and the Young Moro Professionals Network to check on Muslims in government custody, said detainees accused of being members of the proscribed Abu Sayyaf Group do not get adequate medical attention and monitors have a hard time getting access to check on them.

That means, he said, that some injuries may already have faded or healed by the time doctors gain access to detainees.

He added detainees may have been beaten up or tortured but official doctors sometimes put "negative or normal medical findings" out of fear of or pressure from authorities.

He said that common injuries that he has encounted are from being beaten up, but said that there have also been cases of worse torture.

"A common area [for electrocution] are the wrinkly parts of the body like the scrotum. That leaves no scars, and even when you examine it, you will not find anything. Sometimes, the warden will keep us from seeing the detainee so we cannot examine them while the injuries are fresh," he said in Filipino.

Kalim acknowledged that the anti-terrorism bill has a provision to uphold the right to be examined by a physician and for those medical records to be reviewed. He also pointed out that the proposed bill lays down guidelines on documenting torture. 

'Counter-terrorism drive cannot set aside human rights'

Alamia, who used to be OIC regional director of the Commission on Human Rights, stressed that none of the speakers at the forum support terrorism.

"I think it has become now a responsibility of all Muslims, Moros, or even indigenous people, you have to make a disclaimer... I am not a terrorist. I have to say that out loud because I see those comments everywhere, that if you oppose the passage of the anti-terrorism bill, that means you are pro-terrorist or support terrorism, that is not true," she said.

She said that it seems that areas that have the most experience with terrorist attacks were not consulted in the crafting of the bill and that input from local community leaders would have better informed lawmakers on the proposed legislation.

"If you look at our stories and experiences... all of our experiences provide evidence that counter-terrorism strategies that are limited or do not have any regard for human rights cannot and will not win the ideological battle against terrorism," she said.

"All the more it's going to bring more people to violent extremism."

'Listen to the voices from the Bangsamoro'

Speaking on the anti-terrorism bill on "Viewpoint" on online news portal Now You Know on Saturday, Vice President Leni Robredo said input from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao should be "the most powerful voices" in the debate on the bill.

"They are the ones who have faced terrorism first-hand," she said, citing a statement by Rep. Mujiv Hataman (Basilan) that the bill may worsen the situation if passed into law.

"What the people there are asking for to quell terrorism is good governance. What the people there are asking for to quell terrorism is education. What the people there are asking for is a stronger justice system," she said in Filipino.

"These are what they say will address terrorism, not laws that give more opportunities for abuse," she said.

"These are the voices we need to listen to. These are the people who have had to contend with terrorism eye-to-eye and face-to-face."

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