Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the proposed anti-terrorism law is a “human rights disaster in the making.”
HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, in a statement on Friday, said the proposed bill will “open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president.”
The anti-terrorism bill seeks to replace the Human Security Act of 2007, the country’s existing law against terrorism.
It is up for President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature after hurdling the Senate last February and the House of Representatives this week.
Critics of the proposed measure claimed it could empower the government to target activists and dissenters and could be prone to abuse and misuse by authorities. Administration officials have defended the proposed measure.
HRW said the bill uses an “overbroad” definition of terrorism and can subject suspects to warrantless arrests and weeks of detention before they appear before a judge.
HRW also said the proposed measure creates an Anti-Terrorism Council, consisting of officials appointed by the executive, “that would permit the authorities to arrest people it designates as ‘terrorists’ without a judicial warrant and to detain them without charge for up to 24 days before they must be presented before a judicial authority.”
It said the existing law provides that suspects must be brought before a judge in three days. “Human Rights Watch believes that anyone taken into custody should appear before a judge within 48 hours,” it said.
HRW said the council would “usurp court powers.”
The anti-terrorism bill defines terrorism as an act committed by a person in or outside the Philippines who engages in activities intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endanger’s a person’s life, and to cause extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place or private property.
HRW said that the definition of terrorism in the bill “does not require” intents “often associated with terrorism,” such as seeking to “seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental social, economic or political structures of the country.”
“By this broad definition, starting a fight in a bar could technically be classified as an act of terrorism,” HRW said.
According to the proposed measure, terrorism is also committed by a person who engages in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage or destruction to critical infrastructure, and develops, manufactures, possesses, acquires, transports, supplies, or uses weapons, explosives or of biological, nuclear, radiological or chemical weapons.
HRW added that the law, which also punishes inciting others to commit terrorism, “does not define incitement” and “poses a danger to freedom of the media and freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech.”
The group said that while the bill “exempts advocacy, work stoppages, and humanitarian action” from the definitions of terrorism as long as they are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm, endanger one’s life, or create a “serious risk” to public safety, it said the Anti-Terrorism Council’s powers to determine what amounts to a “serious risk” “undermines” such safeguards.
HRW also pointed out that the bill removes a provision in existing law imposing a fine of P500,000 per day of wrongful detention to law enforcement agents who detain suspects who would later be acquitted.
“The broad role of the Anti-Terrorism Council under the new law places people’s liberty rights at considerable risk,” HRW said.
It claimed that the government has targeted community activists, tribal leaders, farmers, environmentalists, trade union leaders, and local journalists with “threats, harassment, and prosecution” based on suspicion that they are communists or communist sympathizers.
“The new counterterrorism law could have a horrific impact on basic civil liberties, due process, and the rule of law amid the Philippines’ shrinking democratic space,” HRW’s Robertson said.
“The Philippine people are about to face an Anti-Terrorism Council that will be prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer,” he added.
PBA party-list Representative Jericho Nograles, an author of the bill, said the proposed measure is not anti-activist and only targets terrorists and violent extremists.
On the other hand, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the 1987 Constitution — the fundamental law of the land — guarantees the freedom of expression.
Delfin Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said criticisms against the proposed measure have no basis./Stacy Ang