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Rights violations in wars vs insurgency, illegal drugs

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - March 6, 2021 - 12:00am

Criticized for its muddled, bumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Duterte government has been trying to rev up its two priority wars – against insurgency and against illegal drugs – in the remaining 14 months of its term.

Both misdirected obsessions have meant further assaults on the people’s civil, political and other human rights. Laws are being pushed through Congress, or amended, to bolster the authority of government agencies.

In July, President Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. This new (ATA) law gives the Anti-Terrorism Council the authority to designate who could be considered as a terrorist before notifying the court, subjecting the unfortunate victim to warrantless arrest and prolonged detention (and most probably intense interrogation and psychological/physical torture). Remember that normally only a court can issue an arrest warrant, and under the ATA only the Court of Appeals can proscribe those designated as terrorists.

Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved on third/final reading a bill that amends key provisions of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.  While the approved bill (House Bill 7814) provides safeguards against abuses and penalties for erring law enforcers, it also gives them the authority to presume that a person is involved – either as importer,exporter, manufacturer or as financier, protector or coddler, etc. – in the illegal drug trade. This can be equated to a presumption of guilt of an accused, as opposed to the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed presumption of innocence until proved otherwise.

Not long after the ATA took effect, the ATC designated the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army as a terrorist organization and moved to block it from accessing its bank deposits (if there are any identified). The ATC and the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End the Communist Armed Conflict) – with retired military generals sitting as members in both bodies – have conflated terrorism with insurgency, which deals more lethal effect on the country’s human rights situation.

The constitutionality of such authority, plus those of several provisions of the new law (which amended the Human Security Act of 2007), have been raised before the Supreme Court in 37 petitions. Oral arguments on these petitions were begun only last Feb. 2 and are on their fifth round this month. Pending the conclusion of the oral arguments, the tribunal has desisted from granting the petitioners’ repeated pleadings for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) or equivalent order to stop the questioned law’s implementation and its chilling impact on the people.

Even before the oral arguments began, the NTF-ELCAC spokesman publicly lumped together the petitioners (insinuating they are part of the CPP-NPA) and their respective counsels. Intoning that the “day of judgment” was coming up, he wrote on social media, “Very soon, blood debts will be settled. The long arm of the law will catch up on you and your supporters.”

State security forces have filed trumped-up charges against certain petitioners, issued arrest warrants and a “shoot to kill order” against one petitioner, Cordillera People’s Alliance chairman Windell Bolinget. Then last Wednesday, the counsel for a group of petitioners, human rights lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen, was stabbed in the head and shoulder by two masked men at 9:30 p.m. as he walked from his car to his boarding house in Iloilo City. The attackers took his bag, which contained his laptop and some documents, then fled aboard two motorcyles. Guillen has survived the attack.

As regards the House approval of HB 7814, Rep. Ace Barbers, the main author as chairman of the House committee on dangerous drugs, told The STAR Wednesday:

“We are giving our law enforcers a potent legal tool to run after coddlers and protectors of the drug trade or the so-called ‘big fish,’ which critics of the drug war have been looking for. Our enforcers are having a hard time prosecuting these coddlers and protectors, so this is our answer.”

If these personalities used to “go scot free,” Barbers claimed, “now these legal presumptions will put them on almost the same footing as the drug suspects themselves because of the presence of factual circumstances that will incriminate them and could make them liable under the amended law.”

He further explained, “There will be no place for them to hide now and their world will be much smaller if these amendments will be passed quickly.”

Despite Barbers’ assertion that due process would still be observed since there would still be a trial process and that “only the court can determine guilt of an accused,” human rights defenders immediately raised the alarm that, should the bill become law, it could violate the Constitution and the Philippines’ legal obligations under international covenants.

Amnesty International Philippine section director Butch Olano said HB 7814 obviously violates “the principle of presumption of innocence and fair trial,” and the bill’s lack of judicial supervision “encourages” arbitrary arrest and detention of drug suspects.  He pointed out that precisely, “the country’s law enforcement problem demonstrates the state’s failure to ensure people’s protection from crimes, whether drug- or terrorism-related.”

“Patently unconstitutional” is how the Commission on Human Rights labels the presumption of guilt for those accused in drug cases. Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit also assailed the reintroduction of the death penalty in the proposed law.

Such reintroduction was “smuggled” into the bill, according to the Makabayan bloc, led by Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna. The proposed law imposes the death penalty for the possession of illegal drugs, “regardless of quantity and purity, during parties, gatherings or meetings, or in the company of at least two persons.” This violates the Constitution and existing law, said the six-member group, which also rejected the presumption of guilt provisions in voting against the bill.

Among the other five legislators who voted against HR 7814 were Quezon City Reps. Jesus “Bong” Suntay (House human rights committee chairman) and Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte, who strongly stood against the presumptions, which Suntay noted numbered 20. Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon who, like Zarate, authored a version of the consolidated bill but withdrew from co-authorship of the latter, also voted No.

Makabayan warned that the approval of HR 7814 “signals the start of a new phase of the so-called war against drugs, characterized by bloodier operations threatening the lives of innocents and more extrajudicial killings, alongside sweeping discretion yet zero accountability of law enforcement agents.” With at least 30 presumptions against mere suspects and favoring the PNP, PDEA and other law enforcement agents, (the bill) “whittles down the constitutional presumption of innocence to a mere sliver,” the bloc said.

“The drug problem in the country can only be eradicated,” Makabayan emphasized, “through effective law enforcement, policies reflecting public accountability and good governance, and competent officials both at the helm of the [enforcing] agencies and in the field.”

The government, it added, “should address, rather than shut its eyes to, the social context of drug abuse and trade.”

Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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