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Duterte's lawyer under fire over martial law comments

Philippine rights activists, legal experts condemn claim Covid-19 can be used as an excuse to impose military rule

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Duterte's lawyer under fire over martial law comments

Elite policemen patrol a market while people shop during government quarantine measures in Manila. (Photo: AFP)

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s top legal adviser has sparked outrage after claiming the spread of Covid-19 could be used as a pretext for imposing martial law across the country.  

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said on May 4 that the coronavirus was spreading like an “invasion” which could serve as the basis for Duterte to impose military rule.

Under the constitution, the president as commander-in-chief may call on the armed forces to “prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.”

Panelo claimed the disease’s spread was an “actual invasion” threatening the entire country.

“There is now a new international meaning of ‘invasion’. It can mean the entry of a disease and its transfer from one area to another,” local media reported Panelo as saying.

Duterte earlier told the press he might declare martial law if public order broke down. He made the comment after members of the New People’s Army killed two soldiers recently while they were transporting aid to a local community in southern Philippines.

Panelo has attributed all incidents of unrest to Covid-19,  making the virus “a threat to public safety.”

As of May 4, the Philippines had recorded 9,485 Covid-19 cases with 623 deaths, according to government figures.

“It [the coronavirus] threatens the entire country, so there is an actual invasion,” Panelo said.

Human rights groups, however, were quick to condemn his comments.

“His interpretation of the constitution is absurd and far-fetched. The authors of the constitution never envisaged a virus, more so a pandemic, falling within the definition of an invasion,” said Carlo Falcotelo, a lawyer and human rights activist.

Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines following the 14 years of military rule between 1972 and 1986 under late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Those years were mainly characterized by human rights violations that included the arbitrary arrest, torture and killing of government critics.

Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Harry Roque has congratulated Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle for his promotion to cardinal-bishop at the Vatican.

Roque said Tagle’s elevation brings honor not only to Filipinos but also to the whole of Asia.

“Your success, your eminence, is the success of the Filipino nation. Thank you for the honor and congratulations,” Roque said in a press conference.

Duterte said in March that Pope Francis was angry with Cardinal Tagle’s involvement in politics, which led to his move to the Vatican as prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

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