By Robin Gomes
Leaders of men and women religious orders of the Philippines on Monday welcomed a petition by lawyers, religious and other civic leaders seeking to move the Supreme Court to annul the provisions of a controversial anti-terror law that comes into effect in a fortnight.
Assault on human dignity and rights
Local and international rights groups acknowledge the Philippines has serious security issues but fear the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 could be abused to target critics of the government. The legislation provides for appointing an anti-terrorism council that can designate who is a suspected "terrorist".
In a statement on Monday, the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), which brings together the heads of men and women religious orders, said in faith and in conscience they cannot accept “a law that may assault human dignity and human rights”.
Ahead of the signing of the legislation, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. expressed concern saying it could have a "chilling effect" on human rights in the country.
The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 empowers authorities to conduct surveillance of terrorist suspects for 60 days, to arrest them without a warrant, and to hold them for 24 days. In the event of an acquittal, suspects are not entitled to damages for wrongful arrest.
The Act broadens the definition of "terrorism" to cover incitement, something that civil society groups regard as dangerous, as it could be used to limit freedom of expression.
Fighting Covid-19 fallout is the priority
At a time when their people are battling the effects of Covid-19, the AMRSP lamented, it finds "no reason to pass a law that does not serve to alleviate their miserable plight.” “Unemployment, the closure of businesses, the continuing spread of the virus, and the lack of relief for our people,” the men and women religious said, “are the most pressing concerns at this time.”
In a previous statement, the AMRSP joined other voices in expressing opposition to the “draconian measure” they “firmly believe will stifle basic rights and freedoms”.
The stated purpose of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, is to prevent, prohibit and penalize terrorism in the Philippines. Duterte’s government said the law does not violate the rights of the people, and is needed to fight communist and Islamic rebels in different parts of the country.
Moving the Supreme Court
The AMRSP welcomed 3 petitions filed by an opposition member and two groups of lawyers, urging the Supreme Court to issue a restraining order on the new law.
The religious hope that the country’s apex court “will be guided by the common good of all and by the Philippine Constitution” so that the “light of rule of law” and of “justice shine ever bright”.
The AMRSP encouraged all religious men and women, people of goodwill and all who cherish their rights and freedoms to stand their ground and be with the poor so that truth, justice and peace may prevail.
“Inhuman and Unjust” law
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has not yet made a statement on the legislation. However, Bishop Jose Bagaforo of Kidapawan, chairman of Caritas Philippines, denounced it as “inhuman and unjust” and said that it threatens the values of freedom, justice and compassion.
He alleged the law is an attempt to silence critics who disagree with the government. He said it is meant to “stifle people’s freedom of expression, academic freedom, the right to organize human and social development, and even freedom of the press”.