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‘Terror law’: The pet bill of the generals

No, it wasn't President Rodrigo Duterte's idea to widen the net for who may be tagged as terrorists, detain them without warrant for 24 days, and wiretap them for up to 90 days. The proposed Anti-Terror Act of 2020, which is awaiting his signature, is entirely the brainchild of military and police generals who are now trying to dismiss fears that it is prone to abuse. 

Many Mindanao lawmakers are up in arms against the measure, concerned that the proposed law will make the situation on the ground worse. The history of the country's anti-terrorism drive in the region has no dearth of abuses that until now are crying for justice.

In the country's capital, groups are also afraid the new law could be used against government critics and to advance political ends, especially during elections. 

These powers were all that generals have been talking about for the past several years. It's a longtime bid to repeal the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007, which has more safeguards to prevent possible abuses, but which the police and military found too cumbersome that they claimed the law effectively aided terrorists. (READ: 'Security before human rights': Lorenzana wants tougher law vs terrorists

In a Senate hearing in 2018, then-Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff General Carlito Galvez Jr claimed they had to release captured suspects behind the bombing in Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat because of what he called "permissive" measures under HSA. They couldn't build a case within the 3 days that the law required them to charge the suspects. 

The generals wanted a 30-day period for warrantless arrests to allow them to conduct their investigation. They said suspects normally break in information on the second or third week. 

It was National Intelligence Coordinating Agency Director General Alex Monteagudo, a retired police general, who pushed for a 90-day surveillance period or one month longer than what HSA allowed. 

"A longer period of surveillance will allow us to identify the network of the organization, including their international connection," he said in the same hearing. 

Railroaded

It's this proclaimed weakness of the Human Security Act that generals used to persuade Congress to extend martial law in Mindanao for over two years since the Marawi siege, a period where commanders exercised some power over local government units. When martial law was lifted by New Year of 2020, they wasted no time to ask Congress for a new law.  

In February, the Senate approved a proposed measure that would give the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) the power to detain suspects without warrant for 14 days, which may be extended for another 10 days, or a total of 24 days. They would also allow suspects to be wiretapped for 60 days, which may be extended for another 30 days, or a total of 90 days.  

If there wasn't enough uproar then, it's because the Senate version was just the starting point in what was supposed to be a longer legislative process that could still temper the powers. 

Suddenly, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Duterte certified the bill as urgent. 

With two unexpected moves, the House of Representatives railroaded its passage. First, the House committee dropped its own bills to adopt the Senate version. Next, the leadership allowed no amendments at the plenary. 

Lawmakers cast their votes without understanding what was happening. They voted yes to the proposed new law, expressed reservations when they explained their votes, and promised to fix the measure at the bicameral conference committee hearing or bicam. 

They didn't realize that the two-move legislative trick allowed the bill to skirt the bicam, the stage where the Senate and the House would consolidate bills if they passed different versions.  

It would have afforded time for last-minute lobbies from human rights groups, too. But not anymore.  

More harm than good

The new law could do more harm than good, warned former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Mujiv Hataman, who is now congressman of the lone district of Basilan province. 

"This law is not meant to combat terrorism. It is meant to give the state the power to tag whomever they please as a terrorist," said Hataman. Basilan, which he represents, is where the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group was born and slain Islamic State emir Isnilon Hapilon operated for decades. 

Critics said the proposed law has "too broad and vague" provisions on who might be considered terrorists. They could be open to the misinterpretation of the Anti-Terrorism Council, a body composed of the same generals who pushed for the law. 

"What if an innocent person is arrested? What can he expect from this law? He can be detained for 24 days without warrant and authorities don't need to bring him to court," Hataman said. He recalled how a former CAFGU died in prison over allegations of involvement in a terror attack, only for the court to declare him innocent long after his death. 

Representatives from the Lanao provinces, where the Maute Group operated, also raised alarm.  

Lanao del Norte Representative Mohamad Khalid Dimaporo said they could have crafted a better version of the law.  

"My real contention, where I feel uneasy, is the issue of warrantless arrests. I feel it's unfair for us in the House of Representatives that we are not allowed to amend Section 29," he said. He abstained from voting.  

Lanao del Sur Representative Yasser Alonto Balindong said he wants to stamp out terrorism, but he also wants to prevent abuse of authority. 

"As a Meranao, we know that we are the most affected when it comes to terrorism, as shown to us by the Marawi siege of 2017.... We, together with the other Muslim Filipinos, are also the most vulnerable when it comes to abuse of authority," Balindong said. He voted no. 

Abuses are too often what push people to violent extremism, the lawmakers from Mindanao said. Because, for every bomber the new law will capture and neutralize, how many more innocent civilians will become victims of wrongful arrest, mistaken identity, and planted evidence?  

Hataman said he would have pressed for more safeguards to protect citizens from abuse. He also lamented why the new law discarded penalties for wrongful arrests committed. 

"It sends a clear message to enforcers. Arrest anyone you want. Anyway, there's no penalty if you commit a mistake," Hataman said. 

Who is the law really for?

Dimaporo also raised questions about the urgency of the law and its practical use in the country's battle against terrorists. 

"The real meat of this is to detain terrorists," he said. But operations against high-profile terrorists "never did end with detention." 

He referred to the moves to arrest Malaysian terrorist Marwan in 2015 and Hapilon in 2017, which ended in the Mamasapano tragedy and the Marawi siege, respectively. 

Most of the country's high-profile terrorists already face outstanding warrants of arrests. "If we're able to do it that way, why do we need [this law]? We have the manpower and ability to file cases against terrorists at large," Dimaporo said.  

There are fears that legitimate organizations might be among the targets of the proposed law.  

Progressive party-list groups in the House of Representatives are concerned more than others. They've been tagged as front organizations for the communist rebel group New People's Army, which faces a proscription case in court as a terrorist organization.

"Activism is not terrorism. Criticism is not terrorism," said Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago in an emotional speech after the vote on Wednesday, June 3. 

Anyone could be subjected to the draconian measures of the law, according to human rights groups. Advocacy, protest, and dissent are expressely exempted from what may considered acts of terrorism, but it offers little comfort amid vague exemptions. 

There are provisions that punish anyone who provides "material support" to tagged terrorists, too, prompting alarm over various scenarios.  

Among close-knit families in Mindanao, are family members going to be detained if they provide tagged terrorists among them with shelter and food? Are doctors guilty if they follow their hippocratic oath and attend to tagged terrorists needing healthcare? Are lawyers guilty if tagged terrorists visit their homes to seek advice? Are journalists guilty if they interview them?  

"You don't deserve that kind of power. No one does," said Magsasaka Party-list Representative Argel Joseph Cabatbat, addressing the military, after the House voted 168-36 in favor of the measure. (The House secretariat corrected its vote count of 173-31 on June 3, to 168-36 on June 4.)

The farmers' representative doesn't belong to the broad coalition of leftist party-list organizations often tagged by the military as terrorist organizations. But Cabatbat said his group had been harassed too many times due to dangerous stereotypes in the military that farmers were rebels and subversives.  

"I beg you to use that power with justice, prudence, and with the objective of attaining lasting peace for everyone," he said. – Rappler.com