PRESIDENT Duterte kept the nation waiting till past midnight Tuesday for his weekly message, only to recycle old assurances of protection against possible abuses under the new Anti-Terrorism Act and the continued rampage of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
On the Anti-Terrorism Act (RA 11479) whose constitutionality is being challenged before the Supreme Court, we have only Duterte’s word, against the reality of police abuses on the ground, that anyone who is not a terrorist should not be afraid.
We who are neither terrorists nor participants in a plot to bring down the government are not as worried about the law as the likelihood of its being abused by Duterte’s operators hounding citizens who criticize or disagree with some of his policies and actions.
There is also the problem of his minions’ inability to distinguish between him and the state, sometimes concluding that criticism of Duterte is an attack on the government.
Ongoing police and related actions have raised fears that the Anti-Terrorism Act is actually an Anti-Dissent Law in disguise whose passage was expedited by the COVID-19 epidemic that has infected 47,873 and claimed 1,309 lives as of Tuesday.
The surge in local cases, btw, has pushed the Philippines to No. 2 position in the COVID tally of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, below Indonesia (No. 1 with 66,226 cases) and above Singapore (now No. 3 with 45,140).
Without outlining an action plan, Duterte tried to assure the public by expressing optimism that a vaccine would soon be available (from China, we assume). He did not discuss what the government will do while the virus spreads at an alarming rate in various directions.
The ATA will not take effect until July 18, or 15 days after its July 3 publication in the Official Gazette, but the police have already been arresting activists and protest marchers using as excuse alleged violations of COVID-19 quarantine rules. There have been also unexplained killings.
Supporting cast in Duterte’s pre-recorded Tuesday Night Live show telecast after midnight Wednesday are members of the Inter-Agency Task Force and his senator-aide overseeing the administration’s anti-COVID campaign.
In the show, Duterte said: “For the law-abiding citizens of this country, I am addressing with all sincerity. You should not be afraid if you’re not a terrorist.”
Stressing that the State has the right to defend itself against terrorists, he warned: “If you kill wantonly, I will take it as a right to kill you.” He recalled terrorist bombings in Mindanao that had displaced thousands of families and claimed many lives.
“Ang ginagamit nila, ang bomba. Ang bomba niyan, sa lahat sa simbahan may tama o may bukol (They’re using bombs. The bombs are used to blow up churches, resulting in casualties),” he said. “They think they are a different breed who would like to be treated with another set of laws when as a matter of fact they are terrorists.”
The President also assailed the communist New People’s Army which he tagged as a terrorist organization ahead of the ATA’s taking effect (assuming the law is not struck down by the Supreme Court despite the 11-3 majority of Duterte appointees in the tribunal).
Under the ATA, it is not the President but the authorized division of the Court of Appeals that will determine and order the proscription of persons or organizations as terrorists or outlawed groups.
The application for proscription is to be filed by the Department of Justice as authorized by the Anti-Terrorism Council upon recommendation of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency serving as the ATC secretariat.
The ATC is to be created under Section 45 of the ATA composed of the Executive Secretary as chair, the National Security Adviser as vice chair, and the Secretaries of foreign affairs, national defense, the interior and local government, finance, justice, information and communications technology, and the Director-General of the Anti-Money Laundering Council Secretariat as members.
When a terrorist is proscribed, the Money Laundering Council goes to work, examining and freezing the funds of the person or entity categorized as terrorist.
If for instance the NPA and its allied organizations such as the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front based in the Netherlands are declared as terrorists, their funds in the banks will be frozen and rendered inaccessible to them.
Local institutions and/or business entities confirmed to be contributing to the NPA or such terrorist groups could face legal sanctions for abetting terrorist activities.
Other groups such as the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf that are categorized by the United Nations as terrorist organizations will be included in the Philippines’ list and their funds frozen.
The ATC is the same body that orders the surveillance, arrest and detention of terrorism suspects. As it appears to be an Executive body, its performing such a judicial function as issuing arrest warrants outside the courts has raised constitutional questions.
The proscription of an organization such as the NPA as a terrorist group is, even under the ATA, a judicial function exercised by the Court of Appeals. The President by himself cannot validly do this just by blurting it out on national TV.
A similar constitutional issue has been raised in the issuance of arrest warrants by the ATC under Section 29, a function normally performed by a proper court. This is one of the ATA sections questioned before the Supreme Court.
Compounding the question over an ATC-issued arrest order is its progressing into a suspect’s detention for as long as 14 plus 10, or a total of 24, days without the filing of charges in court – in violation of the constitutional limit of three days even under the stringent conditions of martial law.