DOJ official: 'Cursory reading' of anti-terrorism bill shows dissent, protest not prohibited

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
DOJ official: 'Cursory reading' of anti-terrorism bill shows dissent, protest not prohibited
Activist groups troop to University of the Philippines Diliman to oppose the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 on June 4, 2020.
Philstar.com / Efigenio Toledo IV

MANILA, Philippines — Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said Monday that a “cursory reading” of the controversial anti-terrorism bill suggests it would not prohibit dissent or criticism of the government.

Perete refused to comment on the “vague” definition of terrorism in the proposed legislation as he noted the executive branch's request to review the bill.

“Although, I would say at this point, based on cursory reading of the bill or the proposed law, it would seem that there are many elements that should be included before a specific act may be considered a terrorist act or an act that is covered by the proposed anti-terrorism law,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino in a Laging Handa briefing.

"Cursory" means "rapidly and often superficially performed or produced."

Perete also noted that the proposed bill "in essence" does not stop dissent and criticism against the government, and this should "somehow calm the concerns of certain quarters over the possible abuses” should it become a law.

Section 4(e) of the Senate bill defines “Terrorism,”  and part of the section part reads: “That, terrorism is defined in this Section shall not include advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action and other similar exercises of civil and political rights.”

However, the same section says that this only applies if those activities “are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.”

Critics of the bill have pointed out that this provision is prone to abuse. Recent arrests, although under different and existing laws, of people who have posted on social media about offering a reward to have the president killed have not helped to quell fears over how the government might implement the proposed anti-terrorism bill. 

On Saturday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the DOJ “will already start” its own review of the bill ahead of Congress’ transmittal of the enrolled bill to the Office of the President for the chief executive’s signature.

Perete added that the DOJ hopes to expedite their legal opinion on the controversial bill, noting that President Rodrigo Duterte marked the bill as urgent.

FLAG opposes controversial bill

The Free Legal Assistance Group, in a statement, cautioned that enactment of the anti-terrorism bill would allow the government to “cast a wider net” on what would constitute a “terrorist act.”

FLAG noted that common crimes listed as terrorist acts are already penalized by other existing laws, “without identifying the definitive characteristics of terrorism and without providing any specific and judicially reviewable standards for the classification.”

The group of rights lawyers also pointed out that while the bill exempted “advocacy, protest, dissent...and other exercises of civil and political rights,” other provisions of the proposed measure  “provides for its own negation.”

“These innocent acts are not terrorists and until the State suspects, determines or decides that they are,” the statement further read.

Under the bill, security forces are empowered to detain anyone suspected of committing or having plans to commit terrorism for up to 24 days. Detention can be done even without any court-issued warrant and based on “executive determinations privately and unilaterally arrived at,” the lawyers said.

“Considering this government’s historical record of impatience with institutional restraints on executive power, the exception rings hollow,” FLAG added.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no let up on arrest on what state agents perceived to be seditious social media posts of users. Arrests include separate posts of a public school teacher and construction worker who offered improbable bounty for the killing of Duterte.

FLAG also said: “Without this showing, the bill amounts to nothing more than a gratuitous, self-indulgent effort sponsored by the State to suppress democratic dissent and opposition at home.”

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