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Philippine Human Rights Groups Dismayed After Supreme Court Rules Parts of Anti-Terror Law Constitutional

FILE - An activist holds a placard at a protest few hours before the start of the hearing of oral arguments on the anti-terrorism law, in front of the Philippine General Hospital, in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 2, 2021.

Fearing “deadly consequences,” human rights groups in the Philippines have expressed dismay after the Supreme Court upheld most provisions of the anti-terror law, which they say is detrimental to the country’s democracy as it threatens human rights.

Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights group Karapatan, a petitioner against the law, said the much-anticipated decision is a “partial win” but also a huge disappointment as it reinforces the climate of fear shrouding the country.

“We fear that this decision upholding the large degree, the draconian provisions of the law and character of the law will spur more human rights violations and more violations [against] the exercise of civil liberties,” Palabay told VOA after the decision was handed down.

“This affects everyone,” she added.

Last year, the Philippines joined the growing list of Asian countries and territories such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand that passed laws aimed at cracking down on dissent and activism.

The Philippines has been dealing with terrorism in the country’s south, which has been a hotbed for local and international terrorist activities, according to authorities.

The law was passed in record time in the middle of the pandemic and was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July last year, when protests were barred under the country’s quarantine.

The Supreme Court handed down its decision on the controversial law, one of the most contested in recent history with 36 petitions Wednesday, just before the December 10 celebration of International Human Rights Day.

“It's a big insult, I mean, this is the last International Human Rights Day under Duterte. It added more salt to wounds that we're already experiencing, to the wounds that were already enduring,” Palabay said.

In a statement, the court said it struck down as unconstitutional a provision making protest a crime if it has the intent of causing harm “for being overbroad and violative of freedom of expression.”

It also declared unconstitutional a provision that allows an anti-terror council appointed by the president to adopt requests from entities, including international organizations, to designate an individual as a terrorist.

The court upheld most of the provisions, however, including a hotly contested clause that gives the state security forces the power to arrest suspected terrorists and detain them for up to 24 days. Rights observers say this provision is prone to abuse and can be used to target government critics.

The court has yet to release its full decision.

“Because the law is arbitrary, then the law is so vague and overbroad. That's precisely the reason why now this law is dangerous. We can only expect worse attacks against human rights workers,” Palabay added.

For the rights group In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, the ruling has “deadly consequences” on legitimate activists who continue to defend human rights.

“As part of President Duterte’s authoritarian apparatus the law serves as the grim reaper of the freedom of expression and association in the country,” the group said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Duterte said his office will refrain from commenting until they have the chance to study the law, but Duterte himself defended the heavily contested law in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year.

FILE - Philippine Senator Panfilo Lacson delivers a message after filing his certificate of candidacy for president in the 2022 national election, in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Oct. 6, 2021.
FILE - Philippine Senator Panfilo Lacson delivers a message after filing his certificate of candidacy for president in the 2022 national election, in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Oct. 6, 2021.

Presidential aspirant and Senator Panfilo Lacson, who authored the law, said he would “respect and graciously accept” the decision before it was announced.

Still, legal scholars hailed the decision as a "small victory."

“The striking down of these unconstitutional provisions is a victory for human rights and civil liberties," a group of law professors from the Far Eastern University Institute of Law said in a statement.

"This guarantees the protection to the people’s continued exercise of free speech, expression, assembly, including academic freedom, especially in voicing dissent against government shortcomings and excesses,” the group of law professors said.

But Palabay with human rights group Karapatan cautioned that next May’s elections will be a test for the controversial law when the voters and the candidates will voice criticism of the Duterte administration.

“It will be a litmus test on how this law will be misused by those in power right now in silencing dissent of those who are considered members of the opposition or ordinary Filipinos and the voting public,” Palabay said.

Various human rights groups said they will continue to challenge the law, even after the court decision, saying bills that seek to amend the laws will be refiled in the next Congress after the elections.

Bearing photos of those killed during the Duterte administration, activists asked the Supreme Court to condemn the decision. More protests are expected Friday to celebrate International Human Rights Day.