Philippines’ new anti-terrorism bill threatens human rights, says HRW


The Philippines’ new law on counterterrorism will eliminate critical legal protections and permit government overreach against groups and individuals labeled as terrorists, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft of 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. This prompted 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 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.” (Source: HRW)