While critics and human rights advocates took turns in slamming the signing of the Anti-Terror Bill into law, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and the bill’s principal author, Senator Panfilo Lacson, backed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in its support of the measure seeking to put more teeth against terrorism in the country.
Following President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, Senator Panfilo Lacson on Saturday stressed the importance of the measure, saying that terrorism “knows no timing.”
Lacson was reacting to critics questioning its approval at the height of the ongoing pandemic and threatening to challenge it before the Supreme Court.
The President, critics claimed, signed the legislation on the same day local cases of COVID-19 breached the 40,000-mark.
Lacson, who sponsored the measure, reiterated that the terror threat knows no timing and knows no boundaries.
“Can we tell terrorists, ‘Don’t bomb us, there’s a COVID crisis?’” Lacson said in a radio interview. “Terrorism knows no timing, knows no boundary. It’s always urgent because they strike when we least expect it.”
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, among the staunchest critic of the measure, said the government should have focused on containing the pandemic and stopping millions of job losses instead of the law that would also allow the detention of suspects for up to 24 days without charge.
“The loss of life here will be innocent civilians. Don’t we want legal protection, a strong legal backbone in the Philippines so that terror acts will not take us by surprise?” Lacson claimed.
The senator pointed out that the newly-minted law will allow regulators to freeze terror-linked assets and arrest suspects while they are still preparing for extremist acts and stressed that the public should not fear warrantless arrests under the law because law enforcers are required to report these to the court, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and an Anti-Terrorism Council.
Lacson noted that arrests should also be anchored on probable cause and personal knowledge of the crime that suspects are “about to commit, actually committing or had just committed.”
Enforcers risk up to 10 years in jail, dismissal from service and a permanent ban from public office if the arrests violate the rights of suspects, he added.
Nothing to fear
“There’s nothing to fear or worry about. In truth, we placed many safeguards here,” Lacson said.
The AFP welcomed the enactment of the measure, saying it is powerful enough to protect citizens from terrorists and violent extremists.
“We now have a powerful statute that provides law enforcement agencies the legal wherewithal to protect and defend our people,” AFP spokesman, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, said in a statement following Malacañang’s confirmation of the new law’s signing.
The new law, which takes effect on 18 July, repeals Republic Act 9372 or the Human Security Act of 2007.
The legislation, Arevalo said, will further capacitate security forces against local and foreign terrorist groups who sow fear among the Filipino people.
“The AFP leadership under General (Felimon) Santos Jr. thanks the Commander-in-Chief for his resolve in putting public security and general welfare his primordial consideration in enacting the law that specifically targets terrorists,” noted the military’s mouthpiece.
Philippine National Police chief Police General Archie Gamboa reiterated that the measure “does not give any additional powers” to the police.
“The intention of the law is there will be only be specialized units to undertake it… Not all policemen are going to exercise it, only special units and special people,” Gamboa said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Esperon, on the other hand, praised Duterte for the signing of the Anti-Terrorism Law, saying this is a fulfillment of the latter’s promise to the public that he will end terrorism in the country.
He vowed that the Anti-Terrorism Council will uphold the rights of public to assembly and to freedom of speech in implementing the law.
“We will guarantee that you have that right provided you assemble peacefully and express your position peacefully.”
Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffino Biazon, author of the Anti-Terrorism Act in the House who later withdrew support for the legislation congratulated security forces for the passage of the law.
“As one of those who have been working closely with the anti-terrorism proponents, I congratulate our state security forces for achieving what they asked Congress for — a stronger and more potent law against terrorists,” Biazon said in a statement on Saturday.
He, however, called on security forces to uphold the civil and political rights of citizens in implementing the law.
“I would just like to remind them that their vigilance in employing the law should include ensuring that it is used only against terrorists, and with the highest regard for civil and political rights of law-abiding citizens.”
The CHR on Saturday echoed a similar sentiment expressing fear that the Anti-Terrorism Law may pose a threat to the guaranteed rights of the public despite the law’s intention of curbing terrorism.
In a statement, CHR spokesman Atty. Jacqueline de Guia emphasized that although the agency agrees against terrorism it should not, however, affect the public’s human rights.
“CHR deplores how violence by terrorists have disregarded individual and collective rights through the destruction of properties and loss of lives,” she said.
“We are against terrorism but in the pursuit of a safer nation, we cannot compromise our human rights,” De Guia added.
with Kristina Maralit
and Gabby Parlade