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Philippine troops in Marawi city, southern Philippines, after a clash with Islamic State-linked militants. Photo: AP

Philippine Congress approves anti-terror law more ‘urgent’ than coronavirus

  • Critics fear the Anti-Terrorism Act – which expands the scope for warrantless arrests – will be used against the government’s political opponents
  • It now needs only the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte to become law
The Philippine Congress approved a controversial anti-terror bill on Wednesday, despite the concerns of legal experts who warn it could be open to abuse.

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 allows for warrantless arrests, 14-day detentions without charge and the creation of an Anti-Terror Council. The government insists the measures are aimed at combating terrorism but activists fear the vague definition of “terrorist act” used in the act means it could be used to clamp down on political opponents.

The bill is the only one to have been certified as “urgent” by President Rodrigo Duterte and prioritised over measures to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Duterte said this was to “contain the menace of terrorists acts for the preservation of national security and the promotion of general welfare”.

However, Vice-President Leni Robredo questioned the government’s priorities: “I hope each institution would devote its entire attention to the most pressing and immediate needs. What I can say about the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020: not one of the needs I mentioned [the lack of public transport and the goal of 30,000 coronavirus tests daily] can be met by this law”.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

The measure was passed with 173 in favour, 31 against and 29 abstaining. Only Duterte’s signature is now needed for the bill to become law, a seeming formality.


In a surprise move, one of the law’s main authors, national defence committee vice-chairman Ruffy Biazon, voted “no” and withdrew his authorship saying he wanted the House of Representatives to craft its own bill and not just adopt the Senate version.

The news came as opponents stepped up criticism of the measures. In a tweet that gained 55,000 likes, the actress Liza Soberano pleaded on Twitter, “Please do not take away our voices, our basic human rights”, while lawyer Mel Sta. Maria, dean of the Institute of Law of Far Eastern University, warned that “the bill, if passed into law, will be any despot’s deadly sword”.

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On Monday, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana attempted to assure the public, insisting there were enough safeguards to prevent abuses, especially by law enforcers, and that arguments opposing the bill were “baseless”. Soon before the bill’s passage on Wednesday, Lorenzana assured the public that “anybody who makes a peaceful protest [against the government] – they are not terrorists.”

Interior and local governments secretary Eduardo Ano said the law was “for everyone’s safety and this was carefully thought out”.

Still, rights activists insisted the measure could be used by the government to pursue critics of the president in addition to terrorists.

A Philippine soldier in front of pro-Islamic State graffiti in Marawi, Philippines. Photo: AFP

Former congressman Teodoro Casino said he expected to be arrested under the law, as his party, Bayan Muna, had been referred to in some official documents as a front for a ‘communist terror group’ – even though it had not been designated as such by the courts.


“Even now, many of our members, including myself, have been falsely charged and arrested for much more established and well-defined crimes,” said Casino. “What more for such a vague and broadly defined crime as terrorism under this new law?”

Aside from the vague definition of “terrorist act”, Dean Sta. Maria said there were problems with the idea of the Anti-Terror Council.

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He said the creation of the body would take the country back to the abusive years of the Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship when the notorious Asso orders (arrest, search and seizure order) could be issued by a civil administrative body, the Ministry of Defence.


Under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, the Anti-Terror Council would have the power to order arrests without warrants and detentions, he said.

“[Asso] was one of the greatest lessons we learned from martial law [under Marcos]. That if you leave [that power] with an administrative body, it can easily be abused. Having that lesson, we made the 1987 Constitution specifically limit the issuing power to the courts,” he said.

“Now, with this law, we are going back.”


Jose Manuel Diokno, the founding law dean of De La Salle University, agreed. “Under the proposed law, we can now detain people simply on the written authority of the [council]. This is similar to acts done during the Marcos era.”

Diokno’s father, the late Senator Jose Diokno, was detained for nearly two years by Marcos before being released without charges.

Diokno, who chairs the Free Legal Assistance Group, also said the proposed law punished the crime of “inciting terrorism”. He said this was “similar to inciting sedition, which historically was used against the political opposition”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Congress passes anti-terrorism bill despite concerns