The Philippine military on Tuesday sought to allay public fears that government security forces could use proposed changes to the country’s anti-terrorism law to crack down on dissent, saying there were enough safeguards in the bill.
Amendments to the country’s Human Security Act are meant only to boost the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the campaign against terrorism, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said.
“The new proposed legislation gives more teeth to the existing law and eliminates some provisions that tend to curtail rather than aid security forces to defeat terrorism,” Arevalo said.
“The bill passes through the crucible of intense deliberations to ensure that it will not trample upon people’s rights, but rather defend their rights to life, liberty and property as well as the freedom from fear which the AFP seeks to uphold,” he said.
The bill’s provisions include a measure that would fine any government security unit 500,000 pesos (close to U.S. $10,000) for each day it keeps a terror suspect in custody, but who is later found not guilty of links to terrorism, he said. That should make authorities wary of carrying out arrests, Arevalo said.
While he noted that it may not end terrorism immediately, the proposed law makes it easier for the government to penalize acts that contribute to deadly attacks, the military spokesman said.
The Senate passed a version of the proposed legislation in February, while the House of Representatives is in the process of passing its own version.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who had struggled to end a five-month siege of the southern city of Marawi by pro-Islamic State (IS) militants three years ago, on Monday called on Congress to pass the bill urgently.
Among its provisions, the bill authorizes officials to carry out warrantless arrests and hold suspects for up to two weeks, as well as impose life imprisonment for anyone involved in the “planning, training, preparation and facilitation of terrorist acts.”
Rights groups have argued that the Duterte administration and government security forces may use the proposed law to go after critics of his drug war that has left thousands of people dead since mid-2016.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, a former human rights lawyer, emphasized that the existing Philippine anti-terrorism law was weak compared with legislation in other countries.
“There are no draconian provisions there. The provisions there were based on similar laws by other countries, which are more effective in dealing with terrorists,” Roque said on Tuesday.
“So the provisions in the amendments to the Human Security Act were also based on laws in [Britain], the United States, Europe and Australia, among others,” he said.
Samira Gutoc, a peace advocate from the southern Philippines, along with other Muslim religious leaders, meanwhile, urged Duterte to reconsider his stance and instead focus on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
She alleged that certain provisions of the bill could be abused by security forces, who would be given sweeping powers under the law.
“We have seen how one incident of police brutality can instigate riots in the United States of America and are destroying the very fabric of the nation,” Gutoc said.
She was referring to demonstrations that began in Minnesota and have spread across the U.S. after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in a Minneapolis street while in police custody last week.
“We therefore ask you, Mr. President, to reconsider the passage of this measure into law,” said Gutoc, a Muslim leader whose ancestral home was also damaged during the 2017 IS siege of Marawi.
“And if its approval is urgent, then please make sure that safeguards are in place to protect the rights of the people, especially the Moro who may be targeted by this law,” she said.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.