Hundreds of Philippine activists converged on a Metro Manila campus amid stormy weather Friday to protest against counter-terrorism legislation that they said could instead be used to curtail basic freedoms and stifle criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Both houses of Congress have passed the anti-terror bill, which is awaiting the president’s signature in order to be enacted. Analysts said that he would likely sign off on the new law before he delivers his annual address before Congress in July.
On Friday, students, rights activists and other groups trooped in the rain to the University of the Philippines in Quezon City to rally against the bill, which seeks to amend provisions of the country’s Human Security Act and give security forces more teeth in battling militants, including Muslim extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf that are largely concentrated in the south.
The protesters in Quezon City chanted anti-government slogans and wore colorful get ups. Some did not mind getting drenched by torrential rain. One of them, a wheel-chair bound student, smiled wanly as she carried a miniature Philippine flag.
“Let her pass, let her pass,” said a protester who donned a mask depicting Duterte as a sad-faced clown.
“The police can’t stop us. You have the top clown,” he said, pointing to his mask.
While the military has said that the bill has enough safeguards to protect Filipinos from arbitrary arrests and mistaken identities, it imposes stiff penalties and imprisonment against anyone found to be working with local and foreign terrorist organizations.
It also authorizes officials to carry out warrantless arrests and hold suspects for up to two weeks.
Rights groups say the Duterte administration could use this as a measure to clamp down on dissent against his administration’s crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands of people dead since mid-2016.
Friday’s rally took place as the Philippines marked the 122nd anniversary of its independence from Spanish colonial rule.
“The true spirit of Independence Day lies in these protests against regimes and dictators who threaten to take away our freedoms,” said Cristina Palabay of the rights group Karapatan, which has been closely following killings carried out under Duterte’s anti-drug war.
“And if the government is so much willing to use scare tactics against people who want to protest, then who’s the real terrorist?” she asked, alluding to earlier threats by the government that it would arrest protesters who violated social distancing rules still in force amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill’s principal author, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, said the basic rights of the people would be protected under the anti-terror legislation.
“Under the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, ‘no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances,” Lacson said in a statement issued on the eve of Friday’s protest.
The demonstration, “regardless of whether they have read and understood the bill, is their basic right,” Lacson said, referring to the bill’s opponents who planned to protest on Independence Day.
“Such basic rights remain guaranteed even if and when the Anti-Terrorism Bill is signed into law by the president and becomes effective,” he added.
Also on Thursday, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Diosdado Peralta, said critics of the legislation could question the law at the high court once Duterte signed it.
“If it will become a law, then anybody can ... question the constitutionality of the law,” Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta said in rare public remarks during an online press briefing.
Peralta said the high court’s actions, however, would depend on the issues to be raised by those who would petition to stop the legislation “because they might be asking only a veto of certain provisions, or the veto of the entire law.”
His statement is being taken as a positive sign in the Philippines, where Duterte virtually controls Congress and had forced the removal of a former chief justice, who had questioned his drugs war.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.