Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called on lawmakers Monday to urgently pass an anti-terrorism bill, but rights groups warned that state forces could use it to intimidate and arrest government critics, particularly those speaking out against an ongoing narcotics crackdown.
Controversial provisions of House Bill No. 6875 would allow authorities to conduct warrantless arrests and hold people deemed as terror suspects for at least 14 days, among other toughened up counter-terrorist measures.
Congress should pass the bill swiftly because the Philippines is facing terrorist threats, Duterte said Monday in a letter to House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.
The bill is necessary “to address the urgent need to strengthen the law on anti-terrorism in order to adequately and effectively contain the menace of terrorist acts for the preservation of national security and the promotion of general welfare,” Duterte wrote.
By certifying the bill as “urgent,” the president hopes the proposed legislation will move faster through the legislative process or be passed before Congress goes on recess, starting June 5, officials with the Duterte administration indicated.
On Friday, the House Committee on Public Order and Safety and the House Committee on National Defense and Security both approved a version of the bill. It aims to stop terrorism in the Philippines, three years after militants linked to the Islamic State extremist group took over the southern city of Marawi for five months.
The Senate approved a version of the bill in February. Among its measures, it seeks to impose life imprisonment without parole for anyone who would “propose, incite, conspire and participate in the planning, training, preparation and facilitation of terrorist acts” as well as those who would support terrorists, or recruit anyone to become members of a terrorist organization.
Threatening to commit acts of terrorism, helping someone to carry out such acts, or inciting terrorism could lead to 12 years in prison for those convicted of violating the proposed law. The bill not only establishes the country’s jurisdiction over Filipinos who join terrorist organizations abroad, but also over foreigners who would use Philippine territory for training recruits.
Handbook for ‘omnipotent Big Brother’
Philippine rights groups claim that the bill, especially the provision on warrantless arrests, aims to silence critics of Duterte who have questioned the killings of thousands of people during his administration’s four-year-old war on illegal drugs.
“It will terrorize targeted critics, dissenters and social advocates more than the real terrorists with unbridled state power … through subjective definitions, arbitrary arrests, and extended detention,” Edre Olalia, head of the National Union for People’s Lawyers, told BenarNews.
“It will be the manual or handbook for an omnipotent big brother in a police state,” said Olalia, whose group represents ordinary Filipinos and groups victimized by alleged rights abuses.
Olalia said the proposed law “unduly expands the definition of terrorism” giving the police and the military the power to arrest and detain suspects on mere suspicion and to order surveillance of suspects for up to three months.
“Should this bill become a law, we should then expect uninvited guests peering into our private spaces,” Olalia said.
“We can expect the administration-controlled majority to try and ram this bill through plenary and get it approved on the second and third reading with minimal debate,” he said, referring to the 302-member House of Representatives.
Olalia warned that would only serve to “worsen the climate of impunity” in the Philippines, where killings of suspected drug addicts and dealers have become a daily occurrence since Duterte became president in 2016.
The legislative developments in the Philippines came ahead of a report expected later this month by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on the rights situation in the Southeast Asian country.
Duterte has consistently blocked U.N. investigators from visiting Manila, claiming that they had prejudged him even before setting foot on Philippine soil.
The Philippine police have admitted to killing about 6,000 suspected addicts and drug dealers, saying the suspects were killed while resisting arrest. International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International, however, have said that the death toll from the drug war could be four times higher.
Commenting on the bill, Roneo Clamor, head of the local rights group Karapatan, accused the House of railroading positions taken by rights groups while fast-tracking the government’s bid to crush dissent.
“From its murderous war on drugs and a rabid counterinsurgency campaign to extending emergency executive powers, as well the numerous attacks on freedom of expression, the passage of draconian amendments ... will seal the deal in Duterte’s brutal campaign of State terrorism – the final piece in the regime’s bid to establish a full blown fascist dictatorship and de facto martial law,” Clamor alleged.
But on Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana dismissed as baseless the fears aired by Olalia and other rights advocates.
“Human rights is sufficiently covered by the provisions,” he said, adding that “there’s no basis for their opposition.”