PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal Arroyo yesterday signed into law a landmark anti-terrorism bill that brings the country into line with its Southeast Asian neighbors battling Islamic militants.
The United States and Australia quickly welcomed the move, saying the law was timely and would help counter terrorism in the Philippines.
But critics say the legislation has been too watered down over the years to be effective, while human rights activists say it will lead to more human rights abuses.
“This new law will help provide the Philippine law enforcement and judicial authorities with the legal tools they need to confront the threats posed by international terrorism, while ensuring protection of civil liberties and human rights,” the US embassy in Manila said in a statement.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downing said the legislation would strengthen the legal regime for investigating, prosecuting and bringing to justice terrorists and their supporters in the Philippines.
In Manila, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Tony Hely said the signing was timely, “given the intensified efforts of countries in the Asia-Pacific Region to stamp out terrorism and related security threats.”
Mrs. Arroyo said the new law would not be used to clamp down on her political opponents and citizens critical of her administration.
“Law-abiding Filipinos have nothing to fear in this law for it is a weapon that shall be wielded against bombers and not protesters,” she said.
She said the law was a “landmark” that “upgrades our pre-emptive capability to check the conspiracies of harm and mass murder, and contain the movement of arms and funds to sow mayhem.”
She said the law would boost the campaign against Muslim militants like the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, both allegedly linked to the Al Qaida terrorist network.
Armed Forces Chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the military “can live with this law” despite some provisions that tended to weaken the government’s hand in fighting terror.
He said the Armed Forces were particularly disappointed with the provision that no terror suspect may be detained longer than three days if he was arrested without a court warrant or if no formal criminal charges were filed against him.
“We did not get all the number of days that we wanted for detaining terror suspects,” he said. “But we can still work with the law, and we hope it will work in our counterterror drive.”
Special envoy Arthur Defensor, a former Armed Forces chief of staff and now head of the task force on terrorism of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, said the signing of the new law gave the message to the world that the Philippines was serious in performing a lead role in fighting international terrorism.
“This legislation marks the official entry of the Philippines in the international counterinsurgency regime,” he said.
In its final form, the law is the first in the Philippines to specifically address terrorist offenses, defining terrorism as a criminal act that “causes widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace.”
It grants authorities access to bank accounts that they believe are being used to launder money for terrorist groups. It also upholds the right of security forces to detain suspects without charge for three days, a provision already on the Philippines’ law books.
The legislature passed the act a little over two weeks ago in a special session of Congress called by Mrs. Arroyo. The bill was introduced a decade ago, four years before Islamic terrorists hijacked US aircraft that they used to crash into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. But critics say the act has been diluted too much to be effective. Human rights activists and leftists charge it would lead to abuses.
The more stringent provisions of the bill were removed by opposition legislators who claimed that they could be used to harass government critics. Leftist political group Anakpawis said the new law would be used “to supplement and cap the campaign of political repression and harassment” against leftist groups.
Mrs. Arroyo has been criticized by the United Nations for a wave of killings of hundreds of leftist dissidents, many of whom the military alleged worked for front organizations of the communist insurgency. Security officials have said the law falls short of what they wanted, but that it is a “good start” that could lead to stronger measures against terrorist groups.
The Philippines’ main terror group is the Abu Sayyaf, a band of local Muslim militants who have carried out bombings and mass kidnappings that have left hundreds dead.
Thousands of Filipino soldiers, with US assistance and training, are hunting down the Abu Sayyaf leadership in Jolo.
The government is also battling for nearly 40 years a Maoist guerrilla insurgency that is widely suspected of having links with legal leftist groups. Under the law, there will be “no safe haven for terror in our country,” Mrs. Arroyo said.