The leader of a former rebel group that governs an autonomous region in the militancy-riddled southern Philippines said Tuesday it was lobbying for a seat on a council, which will be formed to oversee enforcement of a new anti-terror law.
Murad Ebrahim, chief of the group formerly known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and which heads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said it respected President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to sign the Anti-Terrorism Act into law last week but was concerned about “questions on its constitutionality.”
“The BARMM is open to engaging the national government on preparedness against this vicious phenomenon, as we collectively explore new potential approaches to holistically protect our people from the menace of terrorism,” Murad told reporters in Cotabato. “This engagement can start with the Bangsamoro having representation in the Anti-Terrorism Council.”
Having a seat on the body would help allay fears of people throughout the region, particularly Muslim communities across the south, he said.
The law has “a very vague definition of terrorism” that opens it up to potential abuses by the police and military, Murad said.
The law allows the government to carry out warrantless arrests of suspected terrorists and hold them without charges for up to 24 days. It removes a requirement that police present suspects before a judge to determine that they were not tortured while in custody.
The Anti-Terrorism Act also creates a special “anti-terrorism council,” a high-level body to be made up of presidential aides instead of members of the judiciary.
Murad said he was worried about potential warrantless arrests and the use of wire-tapping against suspects.
“I cannot help but be alarmed by the language and foreseeable consequences of the anti-terrorism bill,” he said. “This stems from the long history of … human rights violations and discrimination suffered by the Bangsamoro.”
When “agents of the state are given too much discretion, it often leads to abuses,” he warned.
Several Philippine human rights and legal advocacy groups had petitioned the Supreme Court a day earlier to issue an injunction against the law. Critics of President Duterte have warned that it could be used to stifle legitimate political dissent against his administration.
On Tuesday, a senior leader of the Catholic Church in the Philippines added his voice to concerns raised about how the law could lead to human rights abuses.
“In truth, the anti-terror law is not designed to fight terrorists. This is designed to strike fear among people protesting the government’s incompetence,” Broderick Pabillo, the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Manila, said in a statement issued in Tagalog.
In his opinion, the Catholic-majority country needed to address social issues including poverty, joblessness and the lack of access to basic social services that are at the root causes of terrorism.
“The anti-terror law does not address these issues,” the bishop said.
Bangasmoro communities apprehensive about law
Naguib Sinarimbo, a spokesman for Murad and BAARM’s interior minister, said it was too early to say how the new law would be implemented at the regional level.
But “there is fear among the Bangsamoro (Muslim) communities” that it could lead to abuses, he said.
“Our hope is the government, especially our law enforcement agencies, will take extra measures to allay these fears,” Sinarimbo told BenarNews.
According to him, BAARM will continue to engage with the national government via other channels to influence the council about serious provisions in the law.
“If we can have a man in the council, we will have a better law,” Sinarimbo said.
Already, the law has brought back bitter memories of conflict in the south, when many people were allegedly killed on mere suspicion of being Muslim rebels.
Attacks against Muslim communities had pushed the insurgency led by Murad to grow, with many of the men in affected communities joining the rebellion rather than be killed on mere suspicion, according to many accounts.
The central government in Manila eventually signed a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014. Implementation of the agreement, which paved the way for the BAARM, occurred only after Duterte took office as president and later signed a law granting regional autonomy to the rebels.
But many old members of the guerrilla group broke ranks with Murad and established their own faction, which proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group.
The breakaway faction, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, allied themselves with IS-linked fighters who seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months in 2017, unleashing a battle with government forces that left the city in ruins.
For people who lived through the long years of warfare in the south, Duterte’s anti-terror law has rekindled a sense of dread and uncertainty.
“Authorities can easily arrest and detain any individuals without warrants. That law is not the solution to address the problem,” said Aima Kasan, a government worker.
With the new law, anyone could be picked up and "labelled as the enemy,” Kasan, a 39-year-old mother of two children who is from Marawi, told BenarNews.
“Like at a checkpoint, most of the time soldiers in Marawi treat us differently, even if we have done nothing wrong,” she said. “They always suspect we are supporting the militants.”
Officials with the army were not readily available for comment, although the Department of Defense in Manila had earlier appealed to the public to give the new law a chance.
Murad said he still trusted Duterte even as he was waiting for Manila to give him assurances about the law’s implementation.
“We trust that the president will ensure that the concerns and apprehensions of the Bangsamoro people on some provisions of the law will not happen,” Murad said.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.