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Anti-terror bill one step away from House final approval

Mara Cepeda
Anti-terror bill one step away from House final approval
Lawmakers are bent on ratifying the bill into law before Congress adjourns on Friday, June 5.

MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives thumbed down calls to reject what critics called a “tool for repression” as it approved the controversial anti-terror bill on 2nd reading on Tuesday, June 2.

Through viva voce voting or a vote of ayes and nays, the House members approved House Bill (HB) No. 6875 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 on 2nd reading. This means the measure only needs a 3rd and final reading before successfully hurdling the House. 

All attempts to introduce amendments to the bill were rejected.

Once HB 6875 is passed on 3rd reading, the anti-terror bill no longer needs to pass through lengthy bicameral conference committee hearings. Instead, the bicam would just have to consolidate both bills into one report, which the House and the Senate need to ratify separately.

It has 3 days to do that before Congress adjourns on Friday, June 5. The ratified anti-terror bill will then be sent straight to Malacañang for Duterte’s signature.

HB 6875, which President Rodrigo Duterte already certified as urgent, is a similar version of the bill that the Senate passed in February. The Senate version was adopted in the House committee level on May 29.

In his sponsorship speech, House committee on public order and safety panel Narcisco Bravo argued that the anti-terror bill would “shield our Filipino citizens from atrocious attacks” and prevent the country from being a “haven for extremists.”

“We have certain provisions to empower our law enforcers to apprehend the terrorists before they could cause grave harm to the public, which would ensure that they are convicted. The threat of terrorism in the Philippines is real. It is growing rapidly,” Bravo added. 

But Deputy Minority Leader Jose Christopher Belmonte, who interpellated Bravo for more than an hour, said the contentious provisions of the bill are prone to abuse, echoing the concerns of human rights lawyers and other groups opposed to the measure. (READ: ‘Reject this’: Human rights lawyers up in arms vs ‘repressive’ anti-terror bill)

“Of course there is a presumption of good faith, but we are enshrining laws for the long term…. Puwedeng-puwedeng ma-abuse ito (This can easily be abused), not just by the state forces but also by well-meaning politicians like you and me,” the Quezon City 6th District congressman said.  

“Tama hong proteksyunan natin ang mamamayan natin [laban sa] terrorism. Pero hindi po puwede na habang pinoproteksyunan natin ang ating mamamayan, tinatapakan natin ang ating fundamental human rights and ‘yung civil and political rights as laid out in our Constitution, in the laws, and jurisprudence,” he added. 

(It is right for us to protect our citizens against terrorism. But it is not right that in the process of protecting our citizens, we are also stepping on their fundamental human rights as well as civil and political rights as laid out in our Constitution, in the laws, and jurisprudence.)

There were last-ditch efforts to amend the contentious provisions of the HB 6875, but proponents rejected them all. 

The plenary debates took around 4 hours before they were terminated. 

Weaponizing the law vs critics

One contentious provision of the anti-terror bill is under Section 29, which would allow the Anti-Terror Council (ATC) composed of top Cabinet officials to do functions otherwise reserved for courts, like ordering the arrest of people it has designated to be terrorists.

HB 6875 would also empower any law enforcement agent to arrest and detain without warrant “a person suspected of committing any of the acts” punished under the measure – as long as the ATC authorizes it. 

Section 4 of HB 6875 defines the following acts as terrorism, which now ranges from endangering a person’s life to mere planning to commit such an act:

  • Engaging in acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endangers a person’s life
  • Engaging in acts intended to cause extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place, or private property
  • Engaging in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage, or destruction to critical infrastructure
  • Developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying, or using weapons
  • Releasing dangerous substances or causing fire, floods or explosions when the purpose of such act, by its nature and context, is to intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any international organization, or seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures in the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety 

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 anti-terror bill, 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.

Various civic groups and rights lawyers have already raised red flags over the bill, arguing its provisions are a “glaring attempt to weaponize the law to silence critics and suppress lawful dissent.”

The Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties also said the anti-terror bill would give the government “almost free rein in determining who are suspected terrorists.”

Last-ditch efforts to amend

House committee on human rights chair Bong Suntay tried to add the punishment of administrative offense of grave misconduct or disloyalty to the Republic of the Philippines for public officials caught violating the anti-terror bill.

He also wanted to amend the controversial Section 29, whose provisions allowing warrantless arrests, Suntay argued, is “in violation of the Bill of Rights” under the 1987 Constitution.

Bill sponsor and Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta Jericho Nograles, however, did not accept Suntay’s amendments. Nograles said the House committee on public order and safety “wishes to pass the bill without amendments and we have to decline any proposal for any amendments at this time.”

Magsasaka Representative Argel Cabatbat also proposed several amendments, like excluding isolated acts of people due to “political frustration” from being considered as terrorism.

Cabatbat also proposed to amend Section 4 so that vigils, protests that suddenly evolve into riots, disorderly action and looting but without proof that the same was premeditated shall not be considered as of terrorism.

Nograles rejected them all. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.