Legislators in the Philippines have passed an anti-terrorism law that broadens President Rodrigo Duterte’s power to squelch armed rebels along with backers of the Communist party linked to a widespread violent struggle.
The House of Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in early June and Duterte has indicated he will sign it.
Critics of Duterte, who’s known for a deadly anti-drug crackdown since taking office in 2016, worry that authorities will interpret the law to stop any kind of dissent. People connected with the communists would be particularly targeted, analysts say.
“It’s very ambiguous, and it’s also subject to abuse even if they have a provision there saying that rallies and criticisms against governments are not included, given that there’s a very vague definition of terrorists and it’s subject to a lot of interpretations,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
The 2020 act replaces a 2007 law by adding “proposal” to commit terrorism, along with training of terrorists as violations. It also expands the government’s means of surveillance against suspected terrorists. Suspects can be held 14 days under the new law without an initial court appearance, and judges can give life prison sentences to people convicted of terrorism.
The new act says terrorism means acting to kill or cause bodily harm to another person or attempting to take a life. It covers damage to public property as well, if done to spread fear.
Authorities will use the law to go after the New People’s Army, a branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines, analysts believe. The army operates mostly in rural areas where some among the poor favor communism. The army, believed to be about 4,000 strong, finds some of its recruits at universities.
Insurgencies were taking place in 219 towns in 31 of the country’s 81 provinces as of April 10, the Communist party said on its website. The army has killed about 30,000 people total over its 50-plus years and the party called off a cease-fire May 1.
The government has already “targeted” hundreds of activists, farmers, environmentalists, trade union leaders and journalists among others “on suspicion of being communists or communist sympathizers,” New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch says in a June 5 statement.
Activists overall suddenly face a “real and grave threat”, said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabayan alliance of leftist causes. Arrests can be made and bank accounts frozen on “mere suspicion”, he said.
“It’s quite easy to do since critics are routinely branded as communist affiliated or front organizations of the communists,” Reyes said. “It is going to extend to the legal activists and all other critics and even ordinary people.”
Manila’s new act will “open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president,” Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director said in the statement.
The Philippines is hardly alone in using the law to combat terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s law came under fire in 2017 from the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights for targeting writers and human rights advocates over non-violent views. A law that Singapore rolled out in 2018 lets police ban reporting and posting videos from any terrorism scenes.
Philippine officials show no sign so far of abusing the law, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
Just one person has been convicted under the 2007 law, and legislators made a special point to exclude common rallies and protests from the 2020 act, Araral said.
“They know the backlash against this bill, so I think they’ve done their job to make sure that civil rights are amply protected,” he said. For Duterte, he added, “the purpose of this bill is really to give the government the tools to put a final end to the communist insurgency.”