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A protester carries a sign at a rally against the draft Anti-Terrorism Act in Quezon City, Philippines, June 4, 2020. © 2020 Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via AP

(Manila) – The Philippines government is on the verge of enacting a counterterrorism law that will eliminate critical legal protections and permit government overreach against groups and individuals labeled terrorists, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to quickly sign the bill into law.

The draft law uses an overbroad definition of terrorism that can subject suspects, apprehended without a warrant, to weeks of detention prior to an appearance before a judge. A special body composed mainly of Cabinet officials appointed by the president would provide the authority to enforce the law.

“The Anti-Terrorism Act is a human rights disaster in the making,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The law will open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president.”

In a letter to Congress on June 1, 2020, Duterte certified that passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act was urgent, short-circuiting a more thorough debate of the legislation and prompting the House of Representatives to quickly adopt in full a version of the bill passed by the Senate. The measure would replace the existing Human Security Act of 2007.

The draft law creates a new Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), consisting of members 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. Under existing law, terrorism 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.

Under the draft law, those convicted on the basis of overbroad definitions of “terrorism” face up to life in prison without parole. An individual, as well as a group, commits terrorism when he or she “engages in acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person's life,” or “causes extensive damage to public property,” in order to “create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear.” While the definition also includes aims often associated with terrorism, such as seeking to “seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental social, economic or political structures of the country,” it does not require such intent. By this broad definition, starting a fight in a bar could technically be classified as an act of terrorism, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law also makes it a criminal offense to “incite others” to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end.” The law, which does not define incitement, poses a danger to freedom of the media and freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech. The Anti-Terrorism Council would be the sole arbiter to determine whether a threat should be considered serious. Those convicted would face up to 12 years in prison.

The bill exempts advocacy, work stoppages, and humanitarian action from the definitions of terrorism, provided they are “not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person's life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.” But the council’s powers to determine what constitutes a serious risk undermines those protections.

The draft law also relaxes accountability for law enforcement agents who violate the rights of suspects, particularly those in detention. Under existing law, law enforcement agents who wrongfully detain suspects can be penalized 500,000 pesos (US$10,000) for every day of wrongful detention. But this safeguard provision against government misconduct is excised from the new version of the law.

The broad role of the Anti-Terrorism Council under the new law places people’s liberty rights at considerable risk, Human Rights Watch said. It is an executive department-led agency chaired by the president’s executive secretary and composed of presidential appointees such as the secretary of national defense. The council’s secretariat will be run by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), the government’s main intelligence body composed primarily of security force officials.

NICA, along with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict created by the Philippines National Security Council, has been carrying out a long-running surveillance, harassment, and suppression campaign against activists and groups that operate openly and legally. The agency has frequently accused these groups and individuals of being front organizations, members, or supporters of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Over the years, the government has targeted hundreds of community activists, tribal leaders, farmers, environmentalists, trade union leaders, and local journalists with threats, harassment, and prosecution on suspicion of being communists or communist sympathizers. The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva released on June 4 a report on the Philippines saying that at least 248 activists have been killed between 2015 and 2019 in relation to their work. The military and police, and their inter-agency forms of the NICA and the task force, have similarly accused leftist political groups of being front organizations for the New People’s Army.

“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,” Robertson said. “The Philippine people are about to face an Anti-Terrorism Council that will be prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer.”

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