Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a widely opposed anti-terror law which critics fear could be used against human rights defenders and to muzzle dissent.
Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act on Friday after weighing the concerns of different groups, demonstrating the government’s commitment to stamping out terrorism, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
Opponents say they will question the constitutionality of the law in the Supreme Court.
The law grants security forces sweeping powers to act to fight individual fighters and armed groups, while legal experts say broad articles could allow discriminatory enforcement, privacy infringements and suppression of peaceful dissent, including on social media.
Duterte’s approval comes after a United Nations report on the Philippines that singled him out for publicly inciting violence and encouraging rights abuses, mostly during the so-called war on terror in which he promised to kill 100,000 people and pardon police who shoot and kill suspects.
Military officials have cited the threat of “terrorism”, including from ISIL (ISIS)-linked Abu Sayyaf fighters in the southern Philippines, as a reason why the country needs the law.
It replaces a 2007 anti-terror law called the Human Security Act that has been rarely used, largely because law enforcers can be fined 500,000 pesos ($9,800) for each day they wrongfully detain a terrorism suspect.
Opposition to the law has been mounting, with Catholic bishops saying the definition of terrorism under the law is so broad it could threaten legitimate dissent and civil liberties.
Duterte, 75, had fast-tracked the anti-terrorism act through both houses of Congress during the coronavirus outbreak.
His spokesman said Duterte had taken time to study it while “weighing the concerns of different stakeholders”.
The president made no mention of the law in a speech to soldiers on Friday.
The government says the law is based on legislation in countries that have successfully dealt with “extremism”.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the largest group of lawyers in the country, and UN rights officials have also expressed concern over the law along with nationalist groups and media watchdogs.
Opponents said the law violates the constitution, which restricts detention beyond three days without specific charges.
“This administration has effectively crafted a new weapon to brand and hound any perceived enemies of the state,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director.
“In the prevailing climate of impunity, a law so vague on the definition of ‘terrorism’ can only worsen attacks against human rights defenders.
“Under Duterte’s presidency, even the mildest government critics can be labeled terrorists.”
Defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana and other security officials have played down fears the law could be misused, saying it will not be used against government opponents.
The legislation states that terrorism excludes “advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action and other similar exercises of civil and political rights”.
For years, government troops have been battling Abu Sayyaf fighters who have been listed as “terrorists” by both the United States and the Philippines for ransom kidnappings, beheadings and bombings in the restive south.
In 2017, hundreds of fighters affiliated with ISIL laid siege on Marawi city in the south.
Troops quelled the siege after five months in a massive offensive backed by the US and Australia that left more than 1,000 people, mostly fighters, dead and the mosque-studded city in ruins.