Philippines Supreme Court Strikes Down Anti-Terror Law Provision that Prevents Dissent

J.C. Gotinga and Aie Balagtas See
Philippines Supreme Court Strikes Down Anti-Terror Law Provision that Prevents Dissent Activists stage a protest denouncing the anti-terror law after at the University of the Philippines in Manila, July 27, 2020.
Luis Liwanag/BenarNews

The Philippines’ highest court has upheld the freedom to dissent by striking down a provision in the controversial anti-terror law that says protests, strikes and advocacy may be considered terrorism, according to parts of a ruling it made public on Thursday.

Other than revoking this and another proviso, the court ruled that all the other “challenged provisions of RA 11479 are not unconstitutional,” gladdening the defense establishment but prompting rights advocates to say the court should have targeted other problematic sections as well.

The Supreme Court struck down the qualifier in Section 4 of the Anti-Terror Law “as unconstitutional for being overbroad and violative of freedom of expression,” the ruling said.

A part of Section 4 of the Anti-Terror Act states that “advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and. other similar exercises of civil and political rights” may be considered terrorism if these actions are intended to cause death, serious physical harm and create risk to safety.

In addition, the top court struck down a proviso allowing other countries and groups to request the government to designate persons or groups as terrorists. This means only a determination by the Philippines’ Anti-Terror Council and inclusion in the United Nations Security Council’s blacklist can count as bases for designation anyone a terrorist.

Signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2020, the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 updated an earlier measure that the country’s security establishment criticized as “lacking teeth” in catching and prosecuting terror suspects.

Thirty-seven petitions sought to nullify provisions of the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 as unconstitutional, making it one of the most challenged statutes before the Supreme Court. The tribunal had heard oral arguments earlier this year.

The court, however, ruled that most provisions of the law do not infringe on basic constitutional rights. These include, among others, 12 years in prison for anyone found guilty of terrorism, or planning on committing the crime, or inciting others to commit terrorism.

Additionally, other problematic provisions, critics say, are ones that allow a suspect to be kept in jail without a warrant for two weeks, with a 10-day extension allowed, and give the Anti-Terror Council the power to designate a person a terrorist even prior to a group trial.

Critics said that amid Duterte’s worsening rapport with critics, rights advocates and leftist groups, his administration had cracked down on dissenters under the pretext of a campaign against communist rebels.

They also accused Duterte’s government of using terror accusations as an excuse to stifle dissent and freedom of expression. They said the anti-terrorism law could be used as a tool to galvanize the government’s power to eradicate any political opposition, as it could make baseless accusations of terrorism against perceived critics in order to jail or silence them.

Opposing reactions

Human rights advocates welcomed the high court’s decision as significant, if insufficient, victory, while members of the defense establishment were jubilant.

Edre Olalia, the president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, said the ruling “sustains our position that activism and advocacy are legitimate activities and sacred rights of the people, and should not be considered as terrorism at all.”

However, “we regret that all the rest of the perilous provisions... remain in the books, for now,” Olalia told BenarNews, adding that his organization would “definitely” seek an appeal.

The Free Legal Assistance Group, a group of prominent human rights lawyers, said the ruling that removed the caveat on the exemption of dissent is “an important win for the protection of civil liberties.”

Senator Risa Hontiveros, a leftist lawmaker who voted against the passage of the law in 2020, reiterated her reasons for rejecting the measure.

“These reasons include the prolonged detention of suspects and the dubious definition of terrorism in the law, which can be used to punish acts of legitimate dissent,” she said in a statement.

However, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, a member of the Anti-Terror Council, said the provisions struck down would not impact the efficacy of the law.

“The declared unconstitutional provisions are minimal and it won’t at all affect the ATA 2020,” he said.

“We’ll make appropriate adjustment but we will strictly implement it in order to protect the people against all acts of terrorism.”


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Menk Laquihon
Oct 03, 2022 01:30 PM

Being an activist is not an act of terrorism, but an activist holding a gun is no longer an activist, but rather, a terrorist.