Mortal threat to freedoms

©Inquirer Group of Companies

At long last, the Supreme Court is set to hold a preliminary conference on Nov. 26 in preparation for the long-awaited oral arguments on petitions assailing the legality of Republic Act No. 11479, or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. To date, it has become the most-challenged law in the country, with 37 petitions filed against it by various groups, including some of the best legal minds in the land.

The petitioners have long waited for the day of reckoning for the law that many deem a mortal threat to freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. They uniformly question the vague and broad definition of terrorism and the powers given to a so-called Anti-Terrorism Council composed of Cabinet secretaries that can designate individuals or groups as “terrorists” without judicial warrant. Other questionable provisions include the prolonged detention of suspects without charges (from 3 days to a maximum of 24 days), and the wiretapping and surveillance of suspected individuals.

Among those who are challenging the law are retired Supreme Court justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales, professors of the University of the Philippines College of Law, opposition lawmakers, human rights lawyers and advocates, journalists, student organizations, activists, workers, civil society groups, and Muslim leaders.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, along with the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and former Constitutional Commission member Christian Monsod, has likewise asked the high court to void the law. “This law violates the Constitution and threatens our rights. It will terrorize our people, not the terrorists,’’ said FLAG chair Chel Diokno.

All told, the petitions filed against the anti-terror law now number twice more than those filed against the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

RA 11479’s implementing rules and regulations, which were issued last Oct. 17, did not help address the many fears surrounding the law.

For one, the IRR allows the ATC to designate persons as terrorists and publish their names in newspapers and websites based on “reasonable ground of suspicion.’’ This, according to former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, dilutes the standard of probable cause well defined in the Constitution. “It also poses grave constitutional questions particularly on the presumption of innocence, burden of proof and the like,’’ warned Te.

The NUPL’s Edre Olalia noted that the general rule when it comes to IRRs is that the “water cannot rise above the source,’’ meaning that an IRR cannot substantially change what the law provides. By adding the provision for publication, he said, the water did not just rise from the source, but “even flowed all over the place; it inundated the whole law.’’

What brings a sense of urgency to the oral arguments are reports that state agents are already deploying the anti-terror law in its operations. The first case under it has been filed, involving two male Aeta the military accuses of being members of the New People’s Army. Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos were charged and arraigned on terrorism charges at a court in Olongapo City for allegedly firing at soldiers during an encounter in Zambales last Aug. 21, where a soldier was killed.

The two were charged with violating Section 4(a), or committing terrorism by means of acts “intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person’s life,’’ one of the broad definitions of terrorism under the new law that the petitioners are contesting. Gurung and Ramos, along with two female Aeta minors, were also charged with the non-bailable case of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

According to the NUPL, however, the Aeta were part of a group fleeing from intense military operations and bombings in their ancestral lands in Zambales when they were arrested. The military planted the firearms and explosives on them and falsely accused them of being NPA rebels, said the NUPL; the Aeta were also allegedly tortured and fed with human feces.

For many administration officials and partisans, “terrorist’’ has become the catchall category for opposition figures, militants, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, and all others who happen to be critical of the policies and actions of the Duterte dispensation. The government’s strong-armed approach to dissent, criminality, and even to the pandemic, and the rampant red-tagging of outspoken individuals and groups by officials in the military and in Malacañang, make it imperative that the anti-terror law that aims to expand and institutionalize such a menacing environment be subjected to the severest scrutiny. Any provision in it that threatens the people’s guaranteed freedoms—and the democratic project that the country has repurchased at great price — cannot be made to stand.