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The terror that is the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020

By PhilSTAR L!fe Published Feb 02, 2021 1:31 am

It has been seven months since the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA) took effect and protests against it—physical or online—continue.

The law’s heavily criticized draconian nature gives the government power, which as critics have pointed, poses a threat to democracy that could stifle people’s rights and basic liberties due to its lack of necessary safeguards to avoid abuse, .

Today, Feb. 2, after its initial postponement in January, the Supreme Court pushes through with its oral arguments, where Solicitor General Jose Calida is set to defend the anti-terror law against 13 lawyers, led by former solicitor general Jose Anselmo Cadiz, representing 37 individuals and groups who have filed petitions to the Supreme Court against the law.

The petitioners’ lawyers include Chel Diokno, John Molo, Evalyn Ursua, Albay Rep. Neri Colmenares, Edcel Lagman and Algamar Latiph, and alternates Randall Tabayoyong, Ted Te, Josa Deinla, Rey Cortez, Howard Calleja and Bantuas Lucman.

Among the topics that will be discussed at the oral arguments today include whether penalizing threats, planning, inciting to terrorism, surveillance under the law, and house arrest are unconstitutional; and whether the definition of terrorism is void for vagueness and whether the other terror crimes violate freedom of speech, religion and association.

Prior to the oral arguments, crowds have gathered along Padre Faura St. in Manila to call for the junking of the ATA. Meanwhile, the #JunkTerrorLaw has been revived and is now trending on social media.

Why should ordinary citizens care about the anti-terror law?

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 or RA 11479 was passed to “prevent, prohibit, and penalize terrorism in the Philippines.” It replaces the Human Security Act of 2007 (HSA).

Those who are against the law point out the broad and vague definition of “terrorism,” which could cause confusion when it comes to implementation and could possibly be used by the government to punish its critics.

The anti-terror bill cleared hurdles in the Senate in February 2020 and was fast-tracked in Congress after being certified “urgent” by President Duterte in June.

The move of the House of Representative to vote in favor of the widely condemned bill sparked palpable outrage among concerned parties that then led to online protests against the bill.

Physical protests led to several arrests, including those of seven activists and one bystander in Cebu. They were charged for unlawful assembly, disobedience and violating Republic Act 11332 or Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.

President Duterte signed the bill into law on July 3, 2020 without making any amendments. The law took effect on July 18. Photo from PCOO

Despite the threat of COVID-19 and a temporary ban by the Department of Justice on protests and mass gatherings on the eve of Independence Day, over a thousand individuals marched to the University of the Philippines Diliman on June 12 for a “grand mañanita” to make their voices heard and call for President Duterte to veto the said bill.

No amount of dissent was able to stop President Duterte to sign the bill into law on July 3, 2020 without making any amendments. The law took effect on July 18.

Critics also took issue with the swift passage of the bill, as all these took place while the country needed to address a more pressing matter—the government’s effective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 37 petitions from petitioners—which include human rights advocates and lawyers, current and former government officials, rights groups and online personalities—were filed before the Supreme Court to challenge the law.

According to the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is “unconstitutional, violates due process and the rule of law, and curtails fundamental freedoms.”

What is the definition of the crime of “terrorism” stated in the ATA?

According to the Section 4 of the ATA, advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights may be classified as terrorism. Photo by Michael Varcas/The Philippine STAR

Section 4 of the ATA defines terrorism by specifying acts that intend to cause death or serious bodily injury or endanger a person’s life, extensive damage to property, extensive interference with damage to critical infrastructure; developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying or using weapons, explosives or of biological, nuclear, radiological or chemical weapons; or releasing of dangerous substance, or causing fire, floods or explosions.

The act committed is considered terrorism if they are done for any of the following purposes: to intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidating the government, seriously destabilize or destroy the political, economic, or social structures of the country, create a public emergency, or seriously undermine public safety.

According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCJI), Section 4 also shows that advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights which are intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety, may also be considered acts of terrorism.

How is the ATA different from the Human Security Act of 2007?

Among the petitioners against the ATA are social media influencers led by Mark Averilla (a.k.a. Macoy Dubs). STAR file photo

There are several provisions that were deleted from the Human Security Act of 2007 (HSA) and there are also some that were added in the ATA that was previously not in the HSA. These include the ATA allowing the Anti-Terrorism Council to bypass court authorizations for the arrests of suspected terrorists after a longer period of surveillance.

In the Human Security Act, an individual who is being suspected as a terrorist can only be detained for three days without charge. But with the new law, suspected terrorists could be jailed up to 24 days without charge.

The ATA also strips away the following provisions that were previously in the HSA: the period of detention of suspects in the case of actual or imminent attack, the payment of damages for an unproven charge of terrorism, and penalties against law enforcement officers for wrongful detention of suspects.

Who decides who will be punished using the ATA?

According to ATA’s implementing rules and regulations, it is the members of the Anti-Terror Council, who were mostly appointed by President Duterte, who have the power to order arrest of people who they believe are terrorists.

Members of the Anti-Terror Council include Executive Secretary (Salvador Medialdea), who is its chairperson; National Security Adviser (retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon), vice chairperson; Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr., Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, DICT Secretary Gringo Honasan, and AMLC represented by executive director Mel Georgie Racela.

PCIJ pointed out, however, that the Anti-Terror Council is not a court and, as stated in Section 45, the council does not have quasi-judicial power.

“By giving the ATC the power to designate terrorists, the ATA allows law enforcement agents to bypass courts. This is open to abuse because the ATC is composed of officials under the executive department, with seven of its nine members being alter-egos of the president,” PCIJ noted.