PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Protests greeted a controversial antiterrorism law that came into force Sunday amid fears it could be used to quell popular dissent against the Arroyo government.
A group of about 300 leftist activists carried slogans and banners in a peaceful rally near Malacañang, demanding that the Human Security Act be reviewed by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress.
“We will file a petition with the Supreme Court in the coming week,” said Renato Reyes, spokesman for the fringe Bayan Muna political party, stressing that the law could be used to crack down on legitimate members of the opposition.
The influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, whose stand on public issues helps shapes public opinion, last week also called on the government to review the law.
The bishops said they were concerned over a provision that lets police detain suspects for up to three days without a case being filed in court.
The law also gives authorities the green light to use surveillance, wiretapping and seize assets.
It is the first in the Philippines specifically to address terrorist offences, defining terrorism as a criminal act that “causes widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace.”
Rights groups on Sunday said they feared that a spate of political killings would continue with the law giving the military some form of legal cover to go after opponents that they can easily brand as terrorists.
It could also be used to arrest members of a peace negotiating panel from the political wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that has been working to revive talks with Manila, they said.
“They are very vulnerable to be labeled as communists and be subjected to attacks as has happened to several victims of extrajudicial executions,” said a joint statement by a group of independent observers monitoring the peace talks.
The law would likely “further prejudice the peace negotiations or completely end the entire peace process.”
“When this happens, the internal conflict can only become more critical and can result in even more human rights violations and more victims,” the statement said.
They urged the government to suspend implementation of the law until it is reviewed or amended by Congress.
Police blocked the protesters on C.M. Recto Avenue because their permit did not cover the other groups that had joined the march.
But Mayor Alfredo Lim told the police commander on the ground, Senior Supt. Antonio Decano, to let the marchers through and hold a program at the middle of Mendiola Bridge.
Lim had decreed earlier that Mendiola would be open to rallies on weekends and holidays.
Reyes said the rally was just one of the moves they intend to launch against the HSA’s implementation.
The group also plans to bring their case to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“We will bring the case to the highest court with the strong belief that the justices will protect civil liberties,” said Reyes. “The terror law is the single biggest threat to our basic freedoms and civil liberties.”
Presidential Spokesman Ignacio R. Bunye on Sunday reiterated the government’s assurance that human rights and civil liberties would be protected.
Republic Act 9372, also known as An Act to Secure the State and Protect Our People from Terrorism, “enhances the safety and domestic security of our country by giving us more legal power to prosecute those who commit any acts of terror on our people,” Bunye said in his weekly column.
Bunye pointed out that with the HSA in place, suspected terrorists in police custody cannot just post bail only to commit another terrorist act.
He said that in the Davao City Airport bombing on March 4, 2003, the prime suspect was allowed to post bail due to a legal technicality.
“At the time of the Davao Airport bombing incident, we still had no Human Security Act. The police nabbed a suspect whom they charged with illegal possession of firearms. The suspect eventually bailed himself out, only to commit another act of terrorism by perpetuating the North Cotabato bombing,” Bunye said.
“The law’s message is clear: if you are armed and kill civilians, you will be prosecuted. If you are a communist terrorist, religious terrorist or even a rogue element of our police or military, you will be stopped,” he said.