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Anti-terror law critics ask SC to suspend it

Critics of the new anti-terrorism law, signed on Friday by President Rodrigo Duterte called on the Supreme Court to suspend its implementation, due on July 18, arguing it threatened human rights and freedom of speech.

Anti-terror law critics ask SC to suspend it
Members of the Makabayan bloc of party-list representatives, led by former lawmaker Neri Colmenares, file a petition Monday against the Anti-Terrorism Act before the Supreme Court in Manila, challenging the constitutionality of the measure. Norman Cruz
The law gives the security forces sweeping powers to go after terrorists, but critics fear it could be used to stifle dissent and target government opponents.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers and retired SC justice Antonio Carpio have also expressed intention to file petitions against the new law.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra welcomed the filing of petitions challenging the constitutionality of several provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 before the Supreme Court.

"The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of all constitutional issues raised against the anti-terrorism law," Guevarra said.

"The court's ruling will also guide the DOJ (Department of Justice) and the ATC (Anti-Terrorism Council) in the preparation of the implementing rules and regulations of the law," Guevarra added.

READ: NSA blasts terror law critics

The new law repeals the Human Security Act of 2007. It punishes those who will propose, incite, conspire, participate in the planning, training, preparation, and facilitation of a terrorist act; including those who will provide material support to terrorists, and recruit members in a terrorist organization.

Rights groups had called on Duterte to veto the law, which allows for a special council composed of members of his cabinet to order the warrantless arrest of anyone they deem a terrorist.

It also allows for suspects to be detained for up to 24 days without charge and scraps heavy fines for law enforcers for wrongful detention.

The government argues the law, which was approved by Congress last month, is needed to combat terrorism in the country's south where communist and Islamist groups have waged long-running insurgencies.

In at least four separate filings with the Supreme Court on Monday, lawyers, professors and some members of Congress called for the legislation to be halted before it takes effect to allow for a judicial review and the removal of what they say are unconstitutional provisions.

"In a democratic society, security must never be attained nor maintained at the expense of human rights and civil liberties," opposition lawmaker Edcel Lagman said in his petition.

READ: Groups challenge ‘terror’ act

Besides members of the Makabayan bloc in Congress, a group of lawyers along with former Education Secretary Armin Luistro, and Far Eastern University law dean Mel Sta. Maria have also filed petitions challenging the constitutionality of the anti-terrorism law.

The Supreme Court confirmed the filings. Other groups have expressed plans to challenge the law. 

Critics say the broad definition of terrorism in the legislation could strengthen Duterte's campaign against critics.

Some are already serving prison sentences or facing jail time after attacking his policies including his drug war that has killed thousands.

"The definition of terrorism... is so vague and broad such that it can be read to include legitimate and lawful gatherings and demonstrations where people assemble to exercise their freedom of speech," a petition filed by a group of law professors said.

The government has argued that the law has enough safeguards to prevent abuse.

Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said Sunday the government would respect the court's decision.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has expressed concerns the law could blur the distinction between criticism and criminality.

Several critics of Duterte's administration have been put behind bars, including opposition Senator Leila de Lima who faces drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.

READ: Rody okays anti-terror bill

According to petitioners, the definition of terrorism was vague and "too unclear that people cannot reasonably know whether they are committing 'terrorism' or not.”

"With this vagueness, there will undeniably be instances where Filipinos will not know where social advocacy ends and 'terrorism' begins," the party-list lawmakers said, even as they warned of the "chilling consequence" of the law.

They noted that "fatal flaws" in the definition are amplified in other provisions that define crimes punishable under the law.

The lawmakers questioned the legality of the provisions of RA 11479 on surveillance, saying it violate privacy rights.

Under the constitution, the petitioners said only a judge can issue arrest warrants upon a determination of probable cause.

They also said the provision allowing prosecutors to move to limit the right to travel of a person facing even a bailable case or place him under house arrest violated the constitutional right to bail.

While they acknowledged the need to fight terrorism, the petitioners stressed that this should not violate Filipinos' rights.

"It must never be done through unconstitutional means; otherwise, the enforcers are susceptible to turn into terrorists themselves, terrorizing the members of the society by depriving them of the mantle of protection accorded by [the] Constitution," the petitioners said.

The law professors urged the SC to eventually declare the assailed provisions unconstitutional and void.

READ: UNHRC chief to Du30: Don't sign terror bill

These provisions include the definition of terrorism, the acts punished by the law, the process by which individuals and groups are designated and officially declared as terrorists, and the up-to-24-day warrantless detention of terrorism suspects before they have to be brought before a judge.

The alleged unconstitutional provisions in RA 11479 include:

  1. “The redefinition of the crime of terrorism is cast in vague and ambiguous language so much so that there is no certitude on what acts are proscribed and the people are perplexed on what acts to avoid.
  2. “The criminalization of ‘threat’, ‘proposal’, and ‘inciting’ to commit terrorism has chilling effects deterring the exercise of the right to free speech and dissent.
  3. “The imposition of a maximum of 24 days of prolonged detention of a suspect without a judicial warrant or without charging him before a judicial authority is an unreasonable seizure of a person in violation of the Bill of Rights.
  4. “A maximum of 90 days technical surveillance and wiretapping of communications is an unreasonable invasion of a person’s privacy which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
  5. “An inordinately long maximum of six-months investigation of a suspect’s bank accounts and the freezing of his assets, both without judicial authorization, and the open-ended freezing of property or funds in certain circumstances, constitute an unreasonable seizure of one’s assets.”
Named respondents in almost all the petitions were the President, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, the secretaries of defense, the interior, finance, justice, and information and communications technology, and the executive director of the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

Period of terrorism suspects before they have to be charged in court, and the allegedly vague and broad definition of terrorism.

In the Senate, Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Senate President Vicente Sotto, co-authors of the law, reacting to the petitions filed, said "democracy is at work."

Lacson said, "It would be better (if more petitions were filed) to have an oral argument so that our Solicitor General can defend its constitutionality."

The former PNP chief has maintained that ATL is a good law, swift, effective, and most importantly constitutional.

Sotto, on the other hand, is confident the SC justices will not be intimidated by the number of petitions against the newly-signed law.

"I do not think SC justices can be intimidated by anyone or the number of petitions. It's about content. So you are filing? Be my guest,” he said.

Meanwhile, various environmental groups said Monday they would hold an indignation rally against the Anti-Terrorism Law to expose who they claimed were the real terrorists against nature and the environment.

The protest rally will be today in front of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources central office in Quezon City.

On Monday, more than 60 environmental, civil society, and people’s organizations issued a joint statement condemning the enactment of the bill.

Led by the Green Thumb Coalition, the Power for People Coalition, and the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, the groups said the law, which spurns human rights safeguards while granting unchecked powers to the government, would exacerbate the impunity already being experienced by vulnerable groups such as environmental defenders.

"The Philippines is known today as the country deadliest in the world to environmental defenders, as independent watchdog Global Witness reported in 2019. Since President Duterte assumed office, there had been at least 113 killings of indigenous peoples, farmers, lawyers, and other environmental workers, many of whom were falsely tagged as communists and terrorists before being unjustly brought to their deaths,” the groups stated.

"Crimes committed against environmental defenders in the past have yet to be given justice; now the new law is set to embolden abusers to continue their aggressive development and rights violations. Those who violated the laws on environment and human rights will legitimize further their position of being above these laws. We already see this coming,” they added. With AFP

Topics: anti-terrorism law , Rodrigo Duterte , Supreme Court , freedom of speech
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