human rights in the Philippines

Cordillera activists file court challenge on terrorist designation  

Sherwin de Vera

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Cordillera activists file court challenge on terrorist designation  

FIGHTING BACK. Progressive groups and other indigenous rights activists join four Cordillera activists and their lawyers in questioning the government's terrorist designation, during the filing of their delisting petition in Baguio City.

Sherwin de Vera

Aside from challenging the Anti-Terror Council's designation, the petition also opens a way to re-visit the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines — In time for the International Day Against Impunity, four Cordillera activists filed the first legal action seeking to overturn the terrorist designation by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC).

Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) leaders Windel Bolinget, Sarah Abellon-Alikes, Jennifer Awingan-Taggaoa, and Stephen Tauli called the ATC designation “another form of harassment” in their petition before the Baguio Regional Trial Court on Thursday, November 23. 

The ATC on June 7 designated the four CPA leaders as terrorists, claiming they had leading roles with the Communist Party of the Philippines in the Cordillera and Ilocos regions. The anti-terrorism body announced the designation on July 10. 

The designation followed a series of court victories by the activists on cases filed by the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police.

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The petitioners seek a writ of certiorari, prohibition, and preliminary injunction against the ATC and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). The petition asks the court to nullify the designation and freeze orders on their assets. 

In a statement, lead counsel for the petitioners, Jose Molintas, said the ATC and AMLC “highlight the very dangers of the Anti-Terrorism Law, which… the legal community has raised through 37 petitions to the Supreme Court in 2020.” 

“Now we are doing so again with a very clear example of how the law can deprive its citizens arbitrarily of their rights,” he added. 

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On July 3, 2020, then-president Rodrigo Duterte signed into law Republic Act No 11479.

Many of the opposing petitions filed with the Supreme Court warned that the lack of court oversight could lead to abuse of the power of designation.

Under the anti-terror law, the government only has to release an issuance. It also enjoys the privilege to keep its evidence and proceedings confidential.

After hearing the many petitions against the anti-terror law, the Supreme Court upheld most of its provisions on April 26, 2022. It only struck down the provision allowing for the adoption of a foreign designation.

The submission said ATC’s designation “unduly exposed [the petitioners] to ‘erroneous designation with all adverse consequences’ on the exercise of their civil and political rights.” 

“As a concrete indication of the designation’s chilling effect, they were forced to refrain from openly participating in public discourse and pursuing their advocacies,” the petitioners added. 

They argued that the respondents went beyond their jurisdiction and committed grave abuse of discretion by designating the petitioners as terrorists, freezing their assets, and rejecting their request for delisting. 

The petitioners filed the motion after the ATC denied on August 30 their July 21 request for delisting.

CPA also filed on July 19 with the Court of Appeals a motion to lift the freeze order.

The Cordillera activists filed their petitions on the same day three Southern Tagalog activists scored a victory against charges of violating the anti-terror law.

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‘Good citizens’  

Lawyer Antonio La Viña, one of the counsels for the petitioners, explained that they filed the petition in Baguio because the petitioners “are known as good citizens of Baguio and surrounding provinces in the Cordillera region.”

The filing also coincided with the International Day of Impunity. 

La Viña is optimistic that they can score a win.

Aside from challenging the ATC’s designation of their clients, the petition also opens a way to question the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act again. 

“We think we can win this in the regional trial court. Of course, it would be for the court to decide, but this would eventually probably go to the Supreme Court, whoever wins here, so the constitutionality of the Anti-Terror Law will again be tested, which is very important,” the lawyer said. 

The Baguio City Council expressed support for the removal of the four activists from the ATC’s terrorist list.

The Episcopal Church of the Philippines and the Provincial Board of Mountain Province have added their voices to the call. 

La Viña said such initiatives from LGUs and institutions are crucial in their legal battle because these prove their clients’ moral standing in the community and recognition as civic leaders. 

‘Testament of resolve’  

“We knew from the start that this law would only be weaponized in silencing dissent. They try to make us falter; we, indigenous peoples, and human rights defenders. But we will never deter,” said Bolinget. 

The petitioners have faced red-tagging, harassment, and several charges filed by the police and military before the ATC’s terrorist designation.

The courts dismissed all the cases, the latest of which was the rebellion charge for their alleged involvement in an encounter in Malibcong, Abra, in 2022 that killed two government soldiers. 

Bolinget added: “This legal action is a testament to our unwavering resolve and unity in standing up for our civil liberties. CPA is a legal and legitimate organization. I am a proud Igorot activist, not a terrorist.” 

Lawyers from the National Union of Peoples Lawyers, the Klima Center of the Manila Observatory, and Baguio lawyers Reynaldo Cortes, Francisca Claver, Jennifer Asuncion, and their young colleagues assisted the petitioners. –

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