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Politics

Duterte signs controversial Philippine anti-terror bill into law

Move strengthens fight against insurgencies but comes amid widespread opposition

Hundreds of Filipinos march in Quezon City on June 4, urging Philippine legislators to scrap an anti-terror bill that human rights activists fear could be used to suppress free speech and harass those who challenge President Rodrigo Duterte.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday signed into law a contentious anti-terrorism measure despite mounting opposition and fears that it targets critics of the government.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte and his legal team had weighed up the concerns from different groups before the bill was signed. The law takes effect 15 days after publication.

The Philippine Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which amends the 2007 Human Security Act, expands the definition of terrorism, which human rights advocates say could lead to abuses and stifle free speech. It also permits the surveillance, warrantless arrest and detention of suspects for up to 24 days, according to the draft law.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Duterte's move has "pushed Philippine democracy into an abyss."

"The Anti-Terrorism Law will give a green light to the systematic targeting of political critics and opponents, as well as ordinary Filipinos who dare to speak out," he said.

Risa Hontiveros, an opposition senator, hit out at Duterte for approving the law, even as the country grapples with a health crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. She said the law will provide the government with "fearsome legal tools to oppress and silence those who speak out and resist the injustices, the violence and the corruption of those in power."

"They are afraid of the growing discontent of the people with the government's incompetence and abuses during the global pandemic," Hontiveros said.

Lawyer and activist Edre Olalia said: "It isn't over yet. We will not cease to exhaust any and all legitimate steps and platforms to challenge this draconian law."

Ahead of the signing, local business groups, civil society organizations and representatives from academia and the church, called on the president to veto the bill. In a joint statement on Thursday, they said "more thorough discussion is needed to get broad support for a law as important as this, and to strengthen the unity the country needs to fight the bigger health and economic crisis we are all facing."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on June 30 urged Duterte to refrain from signing the law. "The law could have a further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities," Bachelet said.

The Philippines has battled decades-long communist and Islamic insurgencies, and supporters of the bill said the legislation would help end those problems.

"Terrorism, as we have often said, strikes anytime and anywhere. It is a crime against the people and humanity. Thus, the fight against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach to contain the terrorist threat," Roque said on Friday.

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