Fixing what is broken

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    ‘As always, the challenge will be up to the Supreme Court to decide, either way. Good luck to all those who stood up for the citizens—may the odds be in your favor.’

    YESTERDAY, we saw the first salvo against the Anti-Terror Law: a petition was filed with the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of Republic Act 11479, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. We expect that there will be more, judging by the widespread opposition to the recently-signed measure cutting across different sectors: business, the academe, media, and ordinary folk. Since the enrolled bill was transmitted to the Office of the President, concerned citizens have been closely watching its progress, hoping against hope that the measure will be vetoed, but it can now be said that there was little room for doubt that a measure that was certified urgent would not be signed.

    In the intervening weeks, we saw prime examples of the precise behavior that critics feared will be empowered by the Anti-Terror Law: “arrest now, explain later” incidents perpetuated by authorities. Six drivers from Piston were arrested in Caloocan for allegedly violating social distancing protocols when they were asking for help on the streets; protesters in UP Cebu were dispersed and arrested by police while holding a rally. The oft-quoted excuse for these arrests is a violation of Republic Act 11332, or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act. A simple reading of Section 9 of Republic Act 11332 reveals that none of the prohibited acts listed there are even remotely similar to the supposed “illegal acts” committed by the detained persons in question. In fact, a Regional Trial Court in Bulacan already threw out a case filed against Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao and six other companions, stating that RA 11332 finds no relevant application in the case.

    Persons in privileged positions can always dismiss these fears by saying that you can always face whatever charges squarely in court, blissfully unaware of how costly litigation is in this country. Access to legal representation is not readily available to all Filipinos, and can take a toll on the finances for those who can afford to get legal representation. Pray tell, how can ordinary Filipinos who have a hand-to-mouth existence be assuaged by these superficial assurances? Another attempt to calm critics came by way of a suggestion: the implementing rules and regulations of the Anti-Terror Law can ensure that the law will not be abused, or even correct its vagueness and its deficiencies.

    That one’s a real head scratcher, as any law student can tell you that the fount cannot rise higher than the source—mere implementing rules and regulations cannot go beyond what the law itself authorizes. The fact that RA 11479 does not even impose a penalty for wrongful arrests (as the Human Security Act did) cannot be cured by implementing rules and regulations. The fact that the offenses set out therein are vague and can be manipulated to suit the whims of the powerful cannot be cured by implementing rules and regulations.

    Security officials are one in saying that the new law will give them the tools they need to go after terrorists. It will prevent another Marawi siege, they said. It will allow us to prevent terrorism before it claims lives, they said. However, from where I sit, it seems that law enforcement just keeps on asking for more and more power, forgetting to even report to the citizenry that they are supposed to safeguard what they actually do with the power they already possess. One security official even lamented the fact that one suspect in the Marawi incident was set free because the prosecutor found that the arrest was illegal. To my mind, shouldn’t the answer be improving case build up and better surveillance procedures to avoid outcomes like it, rather than asking for more authority that may pose a danger to many?

    But alas, all these have fallen on deaf ears of the powers-that-be, who seem to have laser-like focus on getting whatever it is that they want, come hell or high water. As always, the challenge will be up to the Supreme Court to decide, either way. Good luck to all those who stood up for the citizens—may the odds be in your favor.

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