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The Senate Just Approved the New Anti-Terror Bill, and It's a Tiny Bit Terrifying

Here’s what you need to know about the new anti-terror bill.
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There’s a lot going on these days—Covid-19 is still wreaking havoc on the planet, affecting not just people’s health, but travel, businesses, and basically our entire way of life. Celebrities are getting married, with in-laws allegedly getting in the way. And climate change, is, well, let’s just say we’re not exactly making any long-term life plans

But one thing Filipinos should at least familiarize themselves about is the recent passage in the Senate of the new Anti-Terrorism Bill. Voting 19-2, senators approved during the third and final reading Senate Bill 1083, which basically repeals the 23-year old Human Security Act, or the basic anti-terror law signed during the tenure of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

This new bill, sponsored by former Philippine National Police Chief Senator Panfilo Lacson, ostensibly has more “teeth,” which basically means it’s more powerful than the last one and has additional measures to compel people to obey it.

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But as much as the new bill provides stronger ways for the country’s law enforcement and justice systems to deal with terror threats, critics have noted that the new bill might be prone to abuse, with certain provisions sounding dangerously close to those adopted during martial law.

"We need a strong legal structure that deals with terrorism to exact accountability, liability and responsibility,” said Senator Lacson. “Those who have committed, are about to commit, or are supporting those who commit terroristic acts should be prosecuted and penalized accordingly."

Fast facts on Senate Bill 1083

Included in the bill are the following provisions:

- A new section on foreign terrorist fighters to cover Filipino nationals who commit terrorist offenses abroad.

- Life imprisonment without parole for those who will propose, incite, conspire, and participate in the planning, training, preparation and facilitation of a terrorist act; as well as those who will provide material support to terrorists, and recruit anyone to be a member of a terrorist organization.

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- The penalty of 12 years in prison against any person who shall threaten to commit terrorism, as well as those who will propose any terroristic acts or incite others to commit terrorism. 

- Twelve years in prison against any person who shall voluntarily and knowingly join any organization, association or group of persons knowing that such is a terrorist organization, as well as against any person found liable as accessory in the commission of terrorism.

- The measure not only establishes Philippine jurisdiction over Filipino nationals who may join and fight with terrorist organizations outside the Philippines, but also ensures that foreign terrorists do not use the country as a transit point, a safe haven to plan and train new recruits for terrorist attacks in other countries.

- The bill also removed the provision on payment of P500,000 damages per day of detention to any person acquitted of terrorism charges.

- The number of days a suspected person can be detained without a warrant of arrest is 14 calendar days, which can be extended by 10 days.

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- Certain Regional Trial Courts (RTCs) have been designated as Anti-Terror Courts to ensure the speedy disposition of cases.

- Videoconferencing for the accused and witnesses to remotely appear and testify will be allowed under the new measure.

- The amendments also provide for the police or the military to conduct a 60-day surveillance on suspected terrorists, which may be lengthened to another non-extendable period of 30 days, provided that they secure a judicial authorization from the Court of Appeals (CA).

In addition to the provisions stated above, Lacson has defended the new bill against critics and said there are safeguards to prevent abuse. 

“All safeguards are there,” Lacson told the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).

For example, under the bill, the conduct of electronic surveillance on suspected terrorists should have a judicial authorization from the CA and not just the RTC.

“(With the intervention of) Senator Franklin Drilon, we elevated to the CA the issuance of judicial authorization to conduct surveillance,” Lacson said.

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The senator added that, under the bill, law enforcement officers who effected warrantless arrest are required to immediately notify a judge nearest the place of arrest.

“They also have to immediately inform the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of the arrest," he added."

Prone to abuse?

But critics are not convinced, chief among them Senators Francis Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros, who were the two lawmakers who voted against the bill.

Two of the most contentious parts of the bill include Section 29, which provides for “the arrest or detention of a person suspected of committing terrorist acts without a judicial warrant,” for up to 24 days, and Section 16 which authorizes “military personnel or law enforcement agent with a written order from the Court of Appeals to secretly intercept and record communications as a form of surveillance,” as well as “compel telecommunication and internet service providers to produce information and identification records by sending such order to the National Telecommunications Commission.”

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“The prolonged detention is an impingement of rights and liberty,” Senator Pangilinan said in a statement. “Why 14 days? If security officials and law enforcers are doing their job, why will it take them long to file a case? Or, is the practice of arrest and detain now, produce or invent evidence later still prevalent, as it was when opposition leader Jovy Salonga was arrested, detained, and charged in 1981? The current law is not perfect, and we, in Congress, should be working continuously to make it work for the people.”

"While all rights permit exceptions, I fear that certain provisions of the bill—specifically those allowing the preliminary proscription of suspected terrorist organizations prior to their being given an opportunity to be heard as well as those lowering the standard for warrantless arrest and detention—go too far and might lead to a number of pernicious consequences," Senator Hontiveros said. 

A counterpart bill is currently pending at the House of Representatives. That measure needs to be approved by the Lower House and then consolidated with the Senate version, before it is transmitted to Malacañang for President Rodrigo Duterte's signature.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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