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44 petitioners ask SC to void anti-terrorism law for curtailing civil liberties

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44 petitioners ask SC to void anti-terrorism law for curtailing civil liberties
Protesters gather at the University of the Philippine Diliman campus on June 12, 2020 to call for the veto of the anti-terrorism bill.
Philstar.com / Deejae Dumlao

MANILA, Philippines (Corrected 11:23 a.m.) — Just a day after the anti-terrorism law took effect, 44 activists and citizens filed another petition against it on Sunday, sayingthe law is unconstitutional and can be used to curtail civil liberties. 

Filed by activists, journalists, academics, religious and civil libertarians represented by the National Union of People's Lawyers, the petition is the tenth legal challenge against the new law at the Supreme Court.

Labor and peasant groups Kilusang Mayo Uno, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and Pamalakaya also joined the petition along with human rights monitor Karapatan.

Among the petitioners were Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes, Jr., activist nun Sister Mary Mananzan, former UP President Francisco Nemenzo, former UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan, former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, former National Anti-Poverty Commission Undersecretary Corazon Jimenez-Tan and former Social Welfare Undersecretary Malou Turalde-Jarabe.

Officially designated as Republic Act No. 11479, the law criminalizes the incitement of terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations...without taking any direct part in the commission of terrorism” and authorizes law enforcement to detain people designated as suspected terrorists without a warrant and for up to 24 days.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government, which last year called for the revival of the Anti-Subversion Law that made being a communist a crime, has said that the law will not be used to silence dissent. This has not stopped the Philippine National Police, a bureau attached to the DILG, from repeatedly equating activism with terrorism and opposition to the bill as support for terrorists.

Mananzan, among the petitioners, has also been tagged by a national task force for supposedly having ties to communist rebels.

RELATED: PNP 'art' tags activists as terrorists amid debate on anti-terrorism bill

The section of the bill defining terrorism inserts the caveat “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” but later goes on to say 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.”

It also allows law enforcement to conduct surveillance operations while the ATC may seek to freeze the assets of any suspected terrorists.

'Liberties held hostage by imagined threats'

The petitioners argued that the law violated the Constitution's provisions on due process, free speech with its vague definition of terrorism, saying "the bar for [supposed terrorism] is low—mere suspicion...the Anti-Terrorism Council, in a manner of speaking, will yet again act as prosecutor, judge and executioner."

"This patently infirm penal invention poses a chilling effect on every person, regardless of citizenship, whether sojourning or living within or outside the Philippines, so that they will be cowed into silence. It deters or discourages people from freely exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, and association...permitting the government to treat [these] as terrorism based on the speaker’s or actor’s purported intent is an extremely dangerous proposition," NUPL said. 

"People’s liberties — even their lives — would be at the mercy of a law enforcer’s own understanding of 'terrorism'...the exercise of these rights would be held hostage by imagined threats, the kind that the current administration routinely concocts in the face of criticism, dissent or opposition to its questionable policies and odious proclivities," they added. 

RELATED: Lacson rejects 'unconstitutional' tag on warrantless detention in anti-terrorism bill

The petition also asked the Supreme Court to stop the convening of the Anti-Terror Council and the exercise of its functions, to stop the drafting the of the IRR and the convening of the Joint Oversight Committee under Section 50 of the assailed law. 

Although the Department of Justice said the law is already in effect, its Implementing Rules and Regulations have yet to be finalized.

The petitioners also pointed to the constitutional rights to due process, property, freedom of association, and for usurping judicial prerogatives as freedoms potentially curtailed by the law, along with the constitutional protection against warrantless arrests and detention without charges and its right to bail and right to travel.

"The law forces the public to barter their freedoms in exchange for security from evils that the government has yet to even credibly demonstrate to exist," the petitioners said. 

"The extent and degree of the pernicious effects of the evils of real terrorism may arguably be not dubitable.  However, the evils of curtailed rights and shrinking freedoms are real, clear, present, and compelling. And they are coming from those who are supposed to protect us. And that is what makes this law as bad as it gets," they added. 

Safeguards against abuse

Lawmakers, including Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez (Leyte), have acknowledged that the law can be abused.

"The fear that the bill can be abused or the law can be abused is not unfounded. We have seen how laws have been used in the years, not just under the reign of President Duterte but even the reigns of other presidents," she said in an interview on ABS-CBN Channel in June.

"But fear of abuse is not a valid reason to reject a bill outright. It’s not a valid reason to reject needed legislation like the anti-terrorism bill because theoretically speaking, all laws can be abused even social welfare laws that are very benign and charitable, they can be abused," she added.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, a former human rights lawyer, also said the anti-terrorism law does not have "draconian" — or excessively harsh — provisions

"There is no draconian provision there. All of the provisions were based from the laws of other nations that have more effective ways of dealing with terrorists," he said in Filipino in June, saying the bill was patterned after anti-terrorism laws of Australia, United Kingdom and the United States.

In its 2020 World Report on the United States, Human Rights Watch noted that "the US continues to indefinitely detain 31 men without charge at Guantanamo Bay, all of whom have been imprisoned for well over a decade, some since 2002."

HRW also noted that, in the United Kingdom in 2019, "a new counterterrorism law entered into force, including measures that criminalize viewing online content, overseas travel and support to terrorism and could result in human rights violations."

Franco Luna with a report from Kristine Joy Patag 

 

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article reported that this petition is the ninth against the anti-terrorism bill. It is the tenth. This has been corrected.)

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