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Church groups warn against Philippines anti-terror bill

A growing number of influential church groups in the Philippines have expressed opposition to the proposed anti-terrorism law that has been passed by the country’s legislature last week.

The social action secretariat of the Catholic bishops’ conference described the proposed measure as a violation of the rights of people and a mockery of the country’s Constitution.

“We condemn in the strongest terms, the blatant maneuvering of the legislative processes and the rule of law to suppress legitimate dissent,” said the church body.

In its statement signed by Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, the social action group called on the Supreme Court to look into the “constitutionality” of the proposed law.

The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches has also called on President Rodrigo Duterte to veto the proposed measure because it supposedly “imperils” the rights of Filipinos.

In a pastoral statement, the Protestant council said it believes that the bill “should have undergone an extensive process of deliberation” before it was passed.

“Causing us great apprehensions are the vague definitions of terrorism, and the extended period of warrantless detention, which opens the way to serious abuses,” read the group’s statement.

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Religious educators say bill ‘ill-timed’

Earlier, the heads of some of the biggest Catholic schools in the country also called on the president to veto the controversial bill, which is feared to crack down on the basic rights of Filipinos.

In a joint statement, officials of Ateneo and La Salle schools across the country said the passage of the proposed legislation is “ill-timed,” especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“At this time, our priorities should be shoring up our health system, providing support to our health workers, ensuring food for our communities, stimulating the economy and providing jobs for our people,” read the statement signed by Jesuit priests and De La Salle religious brothers.

“To be sure, it is our lawmakers’ sworn duty as public servants that these very real and terrifying threats to our health and economy receive more of their dedication and attention than hastily passing a bill that could, with its haphazard construction, wrongly impair sacred constitutional rights,” it added.

Protesters march at the University of the Philippines to denounce the passing of the anti-terrorism bill in Congress on June 4. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

Business groups have voiced their opposition, also in the “strongest possible terms,” to the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

A joint statement signed by eight business organizations led by the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development said the government should focus on fighting the pandemic and help businesses and the people survive the crisis rather than causing divisions.

“We strongly urge our national leaders and the private sector to be focused fully at this time on what really matters,” added the group.

The business groups said they fully appreciate the need for peace and security but stressed that current threats to national security are already being addressed by existing laws and policies and do not require urgent new legislation.

They said the proposed measure “is highly divisive” because it poses clear and present danger to human rights “at a time when our nation needs to come together as one.”

The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is up for Duterte’s signature after the House of Representatives approved it on third and final reading on June 3 by adopting the Senate version of the bill.

The president has earlier certified the proposed measure as urgent, which allowed the House to fast track its passage.

The anti-terrorism bill seeks to repeal the Human Security Act of 2007 — a law that is “already problematic,” according to United Nations human rights office.

‘Worrisome’ definition of terrorism

In their joint statement, the Jesuit priests and the La Salle brothers said the proposed law “adds to the people’s anxieties and fear,” noting its provisions that are sweeping and can be easily subject to misinterpretation and abuse.

“Worrisome are the expanded and vague definitions of a ‘terrorists’; the powers given to the Anti-Terror Council to designate a group as a ‘terrorist group’; the weakening of the protection of privacy and the safeguards against arrests and detention without warrants,” the religious educators said.

“Instead of being a measure to protect our people, in the wrong hands, this bill can be used to oppress our people,” they said, adding that a better version of the proposed measure that uproots terrorism while addressing people’s concerns should be crafted.

An activist holds a placard during a demonstration against the anti-terrorism bill in Quezon City on June 4. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

Under the bill, a suspected terrorist can be detained without a warrant for 14 days, which is extendable by 10 more days, and can be placed under surveillance for 60 days, extendable by up to 30 more days.

The bill authorizes the wiretapping of suspected terrorists for a maximum period of 90 days as an amendment to the Anti-Wiretapping Law and detention without judicial warrant of arrest for a maximum period 24 days of suspected terrorists instead of the present three-day maximum;

It empowers the Anti-Money Laundering Council to pry into the bank accounts of suspected terrorist groups and persons without a specific court order by freezing such accounts for 20 days, subject to six months’ extension by the Court of Appeals, as an exception to the “Law of Secrecy of Bank Deposits.”

A preliminary order of proscription of alleged terrorist organizations also has no terminal duration pending proceedings before the Court of Appeals.

The measure defines a terrorist if a person commits any of the following: engaging in acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endangers a person’s life; engaging in acts intended to cause extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place, or private property; engaging in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage, or destruction to critical infrastructure; developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying, or using weapons; and releasing dangerous substances or causing fire, floods or explosions when the purpose of such act, by its nature and context, is to intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any international organization, or seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures in the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety.

Threats to commit terrorism and proposals to carry out the act will be punishable by imprisonment of 12 years while conspiring, planning, training, preparing, and facilitating to commit the act will be punishable by life imprisonment.

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