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SC upholds legality of Anti-Terrorism Act

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The Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, except for its two most assailed provisions, in what critics called a “devastating blow” to human rights and democracy.”

Members of the human rights group Karapatan hold a protest in front of the Supreme Court on Thursday, December 9, 2021, insisting on the dumping of the entire Anti-Terrorism Act. The Supreme Court has declared the law as constitutional even as it struck down two provisions by a vote of 12-3. Danny Pata

In an advisory released by the Court’s Public Information Office, the 15-member bench declared as unconstitutional two provisions in the Republic Act No. 11479, which has been the subject of 37 petitions before the Supreme Court.

Voting 12-3 in an en banc session on Dec. 7, the justices struck down a part of Section 4 of the law for being too broad and violative of freedom of expression.

It referred to the part that said a protest, advocacy or dissent could be considered terrorism if it is intended to cause death or physical harm to a person, to endanger a person's life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.

By a vote of 9-6, the justices also declared as unconstitutional a provision that allows the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) appointed by the President to adopt requests by other agencies, including international organizations, to designate individuals and groups as terrorists.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, however, expressed optimism that the Supreme Court decision would still enable government forces to run after terrorists.

“I’ll be very happy to see a judgment that will operationalize the Anti-Terrorism Act against its true targets,” Guevarra said, when asked to comment on the SC decision.

“I’d rather wait to see the main decision,” he added.

The Office of the Solicitor welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision which upheld almost all provisions of the law.

“This affirmation is, indeed, a recognition of the Philippines’ paramount need for a dynamic law that will defend our citizens against the baleful impacts of terrorism,” the OSG said in a statement.

With the law in place, the OSG assured the public that “our resolve to win this war must remain steadfast and unwavering.” 

“As the OSG had pointed out before the Supreme Court, the fight against terrorism is a continuing struggle that our nation cannot afford to lose. The degree of unity, then, that its citizens can muster is the final determinant of whether our beloved country will emerge as the victor or the vanquished,” it added.

The High Court left most of the controversial law intact, including provisions that allow the state to make warrantless arrests and to detain suspects for 24 days even without charges, as long as they are authorized by the ATC, which is composed of Cabinet officials.

The Court also left intact the power of the state to conduct surveillance of designated and suspected terrorists for 90 days, compared to the 60-day period allowed by the repealed Human Security Act of 2007.

After oral arguments, the justices deliberated and ruled on the controversial law on Tuesday, but the details were released on Thursday after a thorough review of the votes cast by the justices. The full decision and separate opinions have yet to be released.

Petitioners against the law said it challenges at least 15 fundamental rights under the 1987 Constitution: 1. freedom of speech and expression; 2. freedom of religion; 3. freedom of assembly; 4. freedom of association; 5. freedom of the press; 6. the due process of law; 7. freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; 8. right to privacy; 9. right to travel; 10. right to bail; 11. presumption of innocence; 12. freedom of information; 13. right against ex post facto laws and bills of attainder; 14. right against torture and incommunicado detention and 15. academic freedom.

“The Supreme Court missed the opportunity to defend the Filipino people's human rights and democracy,"said Akbayan party-list nominee Percival Cendaña, who said the whole law should have been overturned.

The government must not "terrorize the public in order to address terrorism," he said. "You don't defeat terrorism by terrorizing the people and stifling their rights. The answer to non-state terrorism is not state terrorism.”

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said the Court failed to fully uphold and protect due process, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

“The entire law should have been voided,” he said.

He said the ATA’s definition of terrorism should have been thrown out for being “grossly vague” because it allows the government to target conscientious dissenters and critics of the administration.

Lagman added that upholding the power of the state to detain terror suspects for 24 days without a warrant is “a blatant violation of the Constitution, which mandates that only the courts can order the detention of a suspect through the issuance of a warrant of arrest."

"Under the Constitution, during extraordinarily precarious times when the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, a person apprehended must be released, if there are no charges filed against him in court, upon the expiration of three day’s detention," he said.

"When a suspect is unlawfully detained outside of the court’s jurisdiction, coerced confessions and torture are bound to be committed by police authorities in violation of the Bill of Rights," he added.

ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro added: “Much of what is left in the law is still abhorrent to the Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said the definition of terrorism can be used to punish acts of legitimate dissent.

“Let me remind those who will implement this law that the Anti-Terror Law does not give you the license to suppress dissent and trample on fundamental rights,” she said.

She said the law is not an excuse to oppress and kill ordinary Filipinos.

"The Senate can and will use its oversight functions to protect Filipinos from state-sanctioned abuses and misdeeds,” she added.

Akbayan’s Cendaña said the Supreme Court’s decision was a "devastating blow" for human rights, a day before the country marks International Human Rights Day.

The group said while it recognizes that terrorism is a serious threat that needs to be addressed, the Duterte administration should not use it against the ordinary citizens.


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