Hundreds of protesters carry anti-terror bill placards as they march at a university campus in Manila on June 4, a day after lawmakers passed an anti-terror bill which critics say will curtail civil liberties. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)
Philippine lawmakers have overwhelmingly passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill which would hand President Rodrigo Duterte wider powers enabling authorities to jail suspected terrorists without trial or an arrest warrant.
The bill, otherwise known as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and which was passed by the Senate in February, was passed by the House of Representatives on June 3.
Many people including Catholic bishops have raised concerns over the bill’s definition of “terrorism,” claiming it to be vague and open to a capricious and whimsical application of the law.
Section 4 has listed actions that would constitute terrorism, regardless of the stage of execution, punishing mere dissent and mass action and the exercising of other civil and political rights.
Section 9 has also introduced a new offense called “incitement to commit terrorism,” which can punish any person without the accused taking any direct part in the commission of a crime or any of the acts listed under Section 4.
Critics said these definitions are vague, arbitrary and could violate citizens’ right to due process.
“The bill fails to establish concrete acts that constitute terrorism. A criminal offense [such as terrorism] should be defined sufficiently so that persons of ordinary intelligence can understand what action is prohibited by the law,” said Howard Calleja, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila Law School.
Calleja said the broad definition posed grave danger to anyone, particularly government opponents, who Duterte can easily call “terrorists” for being critical of his policies such as extrajudicial killings.
The bill also grants Duterte powers usually reserved for courts, such as the personal determination of probable cause by a judge. Without the court’s determination, authorities could detain people for at up to 24 days without arrest warrants.
The Philippine constitution provides that “no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall be issued except upon probable cause to be determined personally by a judge.”
“Here, the executive is the one who determines if an individual is probably guilty of a crime [terrorism]. It takes away that power from the courts,” Calleja told UCA News.
At least two Philippine bishops have warned that the bill’s vague provisions may lead to abuses and human rights violations.
Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos in Negros Occidental province said the vague provisions are dangerously open to abuse by a despotic government to terrorize its critics.
“This government is criminalizing dissent, further suppressing criticism, while at the same time evading accountability in the guise of combating terrorism,” Alminaza told reporters.
Retired Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes also said the bill gives Duterte “dictatorial powers” similar to those of late strongman president Ferdinand Marcos.
Bastes urged lawmakers to enact laws focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic, which was more urgent since Filipinos were suffering.
“Congress should enact laws that give life and hope, not laws that inject terror and more suffering,” Bishop Bastes told UCA News.
The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines also released a statement questioning the necessity of the bill.
“Terrorism is not the concern of the people. People’s health, safety and well-being should be first on our agenda,” the statement said.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, however, reminded critics that the bill still needs to be signed off by Duterte.
“The bill is still subject to a final review by the president to ensure all provisions are compliant with our constitution before he signs it,” Roque said.