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A protest against the new anti-terrorism law at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Photo: EPA

Criticising China could be ‘terrorism’ under Philippines’ anti-terror law, warn retired Supreme Court justices

  • Retired Supreme Court justices Conchita Carpio-Morales and Antonio Carpio and scholar Jay Batongbacal file petition against Duterte’s Anti-Terrorism Act
  • They say controversial law is so vague it could even be used to censure their criticisms of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea
Two former Supreme Court justices and a maritime law expert have filed a petition to scrap the Philippines’ recently passed anti-terrorism law on the grounds they could be labelled “terrorists” for criticising the country’s relationship with China.
The petitioners say government officials have already labelled them “warmongers” and accused them of escalating tensions with Beijing. They say the law is so broad and vague that it could be used to censure them and other government critics rather than the Islamic terrorists it is supposedly aimed at.
Signed into law on July 3 by President Rodrigo Duterte, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) defines a new crime, “ terrorism”, under which it lists six related offences. The act allows the president, through nine cabinet members sitting on the 10-member Anti-Terrorism Council, to designate anyone a “terrorist”. That person can then be arrested without a warrant and detained for up to 24 days without charge, violating the constitutional right to be freed after three days if no charges are brought. The law includes “inciting to commit” terrorism, which covers speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems and banners. The maximum penalty for terrorism is life imprisonment without parole; for inciting terrorism the maximum sentence is 12 years’ imprisonment.
The law is supposed to counter jihadist groups such as the ones that attacked and seized Marawi City in 2017, but critics fear it will be used to stifle any type of dissent. Some say the law’s repressiveness and disregard of human rights is reminiscent of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Philippine troops head in Marawi City after fighting broke out with Islamic State-linked militants. Photo: AP

The law has caused an uproar and 16 petitions have been filed against it at the Supreme Court.

The latest was filed by nine petitioners, led by the retired Supreme Court justices Conchita Carpio-Morales and Antonio Carpio and the maritime law scholar Jay Batongbacal.

Carpio-Morales said she could be accused of “terrorist acts” listed in the law such as “extensive interference” intended to “destabilise” what the law calls “fundamental political structures”.

She said last year she, together with former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, had filed a complaint against Chinese President Xi Jinping at the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding China’s destruction of marine areas within Philippine waters. The ICC later rejected the complaint.
Former Philippines Supreme Court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales. Photo: EPA

She said under the terror law she could be charged with “severely damaging the diplomatic infrastructure between the Philippines and China”.

She added that in 2017, when she was Ombudsman, she had criticised Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs”. Infuriated, Duterte had told her to “shut her mouth” and called her a “spokesman of the criminals”.

Antonio Carpio said he could be charged with “inciting to commit terrorism” because of his “impassioned activism” in fighting for Philippine territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea, the term used in the Philippines to refer to the eastern reaches of the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China.

Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism law unites beauty queens and nuns in opposition

Carpio said that under the law his stance could be “misconstrued” as an intent “to provoke or influence” the government. He said this could “convey in the mind that, to preserve the West Philippine Sea for the country, the people must withdraw support from the Duterte administration”.

He noted how Duterte had accused him and Carpio-Morales of “escalating tensions” between Manila and Beijing. The president had said the pair would be responsible for any violence that might erupt in Palawan, the large island nearest the Chinese military installations in the South China Sea, Carpio said.

A protest against President Duterte's anti-terror law in Quezon city, Metro Manila. Photo: Getty Images

He also recalled how National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon had called him a “warmonger” for his stance on the maritime dispute.

Carpio also said in the petition that Duterte’s son Paolo, a congressman, had posted a Facebook graphic accusing Carpio of being part of a plot to overthrow his father. The congressman later deleted the post.

Why are overseas Filipinos worried about Duterte’s anti-terror law?

The third petitioner, professor Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said that because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the maritime dispute, he too could be labelled a terrorist.

Batongbacal said in the petition he had accused China of using marine scientific research as an excuse to “develop and project maritime power” and said Chinese coronavirus aid was a front “to expand its control in the disputed waters”.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

Because of remarks like this, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque had accused him of being a “warmonger” too, he said.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr defended the Anti-Terrorism Act, saying it filled a gap in the country’s legislation. “When we fight insurgencies, we have laws for that. When we fight rebellions, we have laws for that. But [terrorism] is an insidious new method of attack against innocent civilians, not soldiers. This is what the Anti-Terrorism Act [is for].

“It’s a very specific act and it’s perfectly done.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Professor, retired justices file petition against terror law