Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a new anti-terror law that includes various hard curbs on liberties and rights. Image: Facebook

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approved a draconian new anti-terrorism law on Friday, one that critics fear will accelerate creeping authoritarianism in the nominally democratic nation.

The law’s passage came soon after United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on the “[Philippine] President to refrain from signing the law” because it “heightens our concerns on the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism.”

Rights groups were more strident in the criticism of a law that will allow for warrantless arrests, weeks of incommunicado detention and broad new powers to surveil ordinary Filipinos. Human Rights Watch said the law gives a “green light to the systematic targeting of  political critics and opponents” and “amounts to a stealth declaration of martial law.”  

It was not immediately clear whether Duterte’s decision to sign aimed specifically to defy UN and other international critics of his abysmal human rights record, including in the context of his lethal and abusive war on drugs.

The anti-terrorism law’s passage also came just days after China passed a new national security law that aims to muzzle and suppress Hong Kong’s protest movement through similarly vague provisions that can be used to suppress free speech and jail critics.   

The ongoing global pandemic has given authoritarian leaders regionwide the public health pretext to weaponize existing laws or decree new ones to silence dissent. But the Philippines’ new anti-terror law is by far the most severe to be passed to date.  

Duterte’s new anti-terror law has been roundly criticized as anti-democratic within the Philippines, including by the liberal opposition, civil society and progressive groups. Muslim leaders, meanwhile, fear it will pave the way for widespread abuses by security agencies due to its excessively broad and vague provisions.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City in March 2018. Photo: AFP/Joel Dalumpines

The new law eliminates previous penalties for wrongful detention and relaxes restrictions on wiretapping of suspected terrorists critics fear could be turned on journalists or activists. It also strips legal deterrents against the harassment of dissidents and targeted minority groups, particularly Filipino Muslims.

Most troublingly, critics say, are broad and vague provisions in the law that allow the government to curb certain “exercises of civil and political rights” if seen as posing a “serious risk to public safety.”

Human Rights Watch has warned the law will “open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president.”

The Filipino strongman signed the new law despite “strong cautionary comments” from Malacañang legal advisors following several rounds of internal review by the administration.

An open admirer of authoritarian leaders in China and Russia, analysts suspect Duterte may have taken a page from the hardline playbooks of leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, both of whom have weaponized laws against democratic activists and rivals.

The Philippine defense establishment, on the other hand, strongly backs the law. Duterte was prodded by more hardline elements within his cabinet, including more than a dozen former top generals overseeing both security and welfare agencies, who have long called for tougher anti-terrorism legislation. 

For years, they have argued that existing legislation, namely the 2007 Human Security Act, imposes undue constraints on counterterror operations that have hobbled officials to uproot militant networks.

From their perspective, the 2017 Marawi siege led by extremist militants who had declared loyalty to Islamic State could have been prevented if security agencies had been given more leeway to pre-empt and neutralize terror cells across the country’s troubled south.

A Filipino soldier uses binoculars during the siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-aligned militants, July 1, 2017. Photo: Twitter

There are currently a dozen Islamic State-affiliated groups operating in Mindanao, many intent on creating an Islamic caliphate on the restive island.   

Earlier this year, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana strongly endorsed the then-still pending controversial bill because he felt it “will strengthen the government’s response against terrorism.”

The 2007 Anti-Terror Law, argued the country’s top defense official, “[is] no longer responsive to the evolving nature of the threats we face, hence the need for a new law.”

Former police chief and veteran Senator Panfilo Lacson, who heads the upper house’s national defense committee, hailed the new law’s passage as a necessary measure against non-traditional security threats.

“Much credit goes to (Duterte). With all the pressure coming from different directions against the signing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill into law, at the end of the day, it is his strong political will that mattered most,” said the senator, who played a key role in drafting the controversial law.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, the principal author of the bill, was “glad the president has sifted through the rubble and saw the importance of the law.”

“It’s full of safeguards but strong against terrorists. Unlike the old law, it was subject to abuse by the terrorists,” the Senate leader said.

The strongest pushback came from Muslim leaders, many of whom have represented a strong pillar of Duterte’s support base in recent years.

The Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which oversees the establishment of a new Muslim-majority entity in the south, adopted a resolution that heavily urged Duterte against enacting the law.

It raised “the issue of [definitional] vagueness” of what constitutes terrorism and how this affects surveillance, interception and wiretapping of suspects without due process.

MILF forces at Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, March 27, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

“It is our fear that among the hardest hit once the Anti-Terrorism Bill passes into law would be the Bangsamoro. Once again, incidents of violations of human rights will be on the rise and the Bangsamoro people, easily labeled as terrorists, would again be subject to discrimination and abuse,” said Bangsamoro Chief Minister Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF recently entered a ceasefire with the government after decades of debilitating civil war. Members of the Bangsamoro Parliament such as Amir Mawallil, were also critical, fearing the prospect of large-scale profiling against Muslim communities under the law.

“We are prone to abuses and evidently we have cases of illegal detention and unlawful arrest,” stated Mawallil.

Progressive and left-leaning civil society groups, a major target of Duterte in recent years, are also worried about the potential for abuse.

Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan alliance, said the new law represented a “real and grave” threat whereby even personal bank accounts can be frozen based on  “mere suspicion.”

“It’s quite easy to do since critics are routinely branded as communist affiliated or front organizations of the communists,” said Reyes. He said the law could illegitimately crackdown on “legal activists”, “critics” and “even ordinary people.”   

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