House joint committee adopts Senate version of toughened anti-terrorism bill

JC Gotinga

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House joint committee adopts Senate version of toughened anti-terrorism bill
(UPDATED) The move fast-tracks the passage of a proposed law that broadens the definition of terrorism and heightens punishment of convicted terrorists, but which the opposition sees as a clampdown on dissent

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A proposed tougher law against terrorism hurdled the committee level at the House of Representatives on Friday afternoon, May 29, putting the controversial measure up for plenary debates.

The House committees on Public Order and Safety, and on National Defense and Security, essentially adopted the Senate’s version of a new Human Security Act, or anti-terrorism law, to replace the original measure passed in 2007.

At the end of a roughly two-hour online video conference, the joint committee voted 34 to 2 in favor of approving the Senate version, which substituted several House versions of the same measure.

Only two members of the joint committee opposed the bill: Bayan Muna Party-list Representative Carlos Zarate, and Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Cristopher “Kit” Belmonte, both deputy minority leaders.

“The instruction of the House leadership is to somehow submit and approve today a bill that is similar to the Senate bill, because of the possibility of avoiding a bicameral conference,” Masbate 1st District Representative Narciso Bravo Jr, chair of the public order committee said at the beginning of the virtual hearing.

Going with the Senate’s approved version of the measure would cut to the time it would take to pass the bill, Bravo added.

Lorenzana statement

On Saturday, May 30, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued a statement saying the Defense Department welcomes the approval of the bill by the House committees.

Lorenzana said the proposed measure “will strengthen the government’s response against terrorism.”

“The Human Security Act of 2007 is no longer responsive to the evolving nature of the threats we face, hence the need for a new law,” the Defense chief said.

‘Clampdown on dissent’

Members of the opposition questioned the provisions of the bill. With broader definitions of terroristic acts and fewer restrictions on law enforcement, the measure is prone to abuse and effectively criminalizes opposition to the government, they said.

“I have no objection to going after combatants…. But if we broaden this to go after – by the definition of the national security establishment – the so-called white areas, soft targets, fellow travelers, students who are merely idealistic, professors who espouse theory, political leaders who propose certain provisions that even under the current prescription of the law are allowed, then we’re in trouble,” said Belmonte, who is also the secretary general of the Liberal Party.

Ito ay masahol na bersyon (This is a worse version),” said Zarate, adding that the measure would surely be used to trample on citizens’ rights.

“It would be easy to weaponize the anti-terror bill against critics and members of the opposition because of its vagueness and the broadness of its definition of terrorism,” the progressive lawmaker said.

Zarate added that the Anti-Terrorism Council the bill proposes would be a de facto junta, which would likely restrict even calling out corruption in the government.

Alliance of Concerned Teachers Party-list Representative France Castro said the measure toughens penalties on terrorism convicts but softens those on erring law enforcement agents.

Castro also opposed the repeal of the 2007 law’s provision that entitled wrongly accused suspects – or those who would be acquitted of terror charges – to an indemnity of P500,000 for every day they spent in detention.

Kabataan Party-list Representative Sarah Elago called the measure a “clampdown on dissent.” She noted the recent arrests of people over social media posts critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill “effectively permits state forces to commit flagrant human rights violations,” Elago added.

Addressing terrorism

Lawmakers in favor of the bill said the Human Security Act of 2007 had no teeth. They noted how only one prosecution was ever done under the existing measure because it was too strict on law enforcers.

“In the past 13 years, there has been sparing use of the law because of much restrictions on the police and military…it did not address the problem of terrorism,” said Muntinlupa Representative Rufino Biazon.

Senate Bill 1083, an “Act to Prevent, Prohibit and Penalize Terrorism,” was approved on third and final reading in February.

It defines terrorism as engaging in the following acts with the purpose of inciting fear and seriously destabilizing structures in the country:

  • Causing death or serious bodily injuries to any persons, or endangers a person’s life;
  • Causing extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place, or private property;
  • Causing extensive interference with, damage, or destruction to critical infrastructure;
  • Developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying, or using weapons, explosives, or biological, nuclear, radiological, or chemical weapons;
  • Releasing dangerous substances or cause fire, floods, and explosions.

Persons who propose, incite, conspire, and participate in the planning, training, and facilitation of a terrorist attack could face a sentence equivalent to life imprisonment without parole.

The same punishment goes for persons who provide support to terrorists and recruit others as member of a terrorist organization.

Persons found guilty of the following acts will be punished with 12 years’ imprisonment:

  • Threatening to commit terrorism
  • Inciting others to commit terroristic acts
  • Voluntarily and knowingly joining any terrorist group or association
  • Being an accessory in the commission of terrorism

Under the measure, a suspect can be detained without a warrant of arrest for 14 days, extendable by 10 more days. They can also be placed under surveillance for 60 days, extendable by up to 30 more days, by the police or the military.

Who are ‘terrorists?’

Officials including National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, and other former and current military generals have been pushing for this measure.

Besides extremist groups like ISIS, the Abu Sayyaf, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the government also considers communist rebels “terrorists.”

Over the past year, the government has increasingly “red-tagged” progressive groups, even those with congressional representation, as legal front organizations for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its guerrilla force, the New People’s Army.

Under orders from President Rodrigo Duterte, the police and military are on a “final push” to stamp out the communist rebellion that began in 1969. Targets include guerrillas in the field, and practically anyone in society the government suspects of supporting the communists. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.