MANILA, Philippines – If it came down to a choice between drastic measures toward terror suspects and their human rights, the country’s defense chief said he would rather take the tougher course.
"I would suggest that if we are given that choice, we will keel it towards security because of the dire consequences to our community,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a hearing of the Senate committee on national defense and security on Tuesday, August 13.
"I believe we should treat terrorism as a special crime, way above the ordinary crimes that we are dealing with,” Lorenzana said, pushing for more liberal powers for law enforcement agencies as lawmakers look to amend the Human Security Act of 2007.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, committee chairperson and author of one of 3 versions of the amended law, said the Philippines has “the weakest law against terrorism” among countries facing the same threat.
The law currently allows the detention of terror suspects without an arrest warrant from a judicial court for up to 3 days. Lacson has proposed to extend it to 14 days; Lorenzana asked for 30 to 60 days.
"Simply, we would like to give the law enforcement agency enough time to develop their case. I think sometimes 30 days is not enough, considering that it’s really difficult also to develop cases. Anyway, 60 days, that’s very quick. Two months lang po ’yon (That’s only two months), Mr Chairman,” Lorenzana told Lacson.
Commissioner Gwendolyn Pimentel Gana of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) opposed Lorenzana’s suggestion, saying it may infringe the constitutionally protected rights of crime suspects, particularly the presumption of innocence and right to liberty.
The draft amendments’ broader definition of terrorism might mix it up with ordinary crimes, and the inclusion of “glorification of terrorism” as a punishable act impinges on the freedom of expression, Gana said.
"The challenge for the government is to find a balance between upholding national security and the respect of human rights. It’s important for the state to equally improve its intelligence gathering and investigation capacity for a more targeted pursuit of terrorists,” she told the committee.
"We should not be made to choose between safety and human rights,” she added.
Security officials, including Lorenzana, have acknowledged the increasing threat of terrorism in the Philippines, citing 3 instances of suicide bombings in parts of Mindanao over the past year.
The deadly June 28 attack on an army camp in Indanan, Sulu, was the first case of a suicide bombing by a Filipino confirmed by the police and military.
In the wake of the attacks and the 2017 siege of Marawi City by the pro-Islamic State (ISIS) Maute group, Lorenzana and other security officials have been lobbying to amend the Human Security Act, saying its current provisions constrain them from going after terror suspects.
Besides the short time allowed for warrantless detention, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) earlier complained of the P500,000 in damages security agencies are ordered to pay for every day they detained a suspect who ends up acquitted of terror charges.
Under the current law, security agencies may only obtain authorization to surveil, intercept, and record – that is, wiretap – suspects’ communications from the Court of Appeals.
The proposed amendments to the law allow regional trial courts to issue such authorizations, and extend their validity from 30 days to 60 days or even longer.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s version of the amendments extends the authorization’s validity to up to 90 days, and warrantless detention of suspects up to 30 days.
Senator Imee Marcos’ version of the measure includes United Nations conventions and other international agreements in defining terrorism.
All 3 versions of the amended law do away with the P500,000 per day of detention in damages owed to acquitted suspects.
The Senate committee said the law will also be expanded to involve the religious and education sectors in order to address the “morphing” nature of terrorism rooted in extremist ideology.
Lacson added that terrorism should be considered a “continuing crime” like rebellion, to enable security agencies to apprehend and prosecute suspects even long after they committed terrorist acts.
As for Lorenzana’s request to allow terror suspects’ warrantless detention of up to 60 days, the former national police chief doubts it would be possible.
"Medyo mahirap ipasa dahil ang 14 days lang (It seems difficult to pass because even just 14 days), I expect to see resistance from the progressive-minded lawmakers,” Lacson told reporters after the hearing.
However, the senator said he was “inclined” to support Lorenzana’s position favoring stringent measures against terror suspects.
"Because you are dealing with the rights of humanity after all, di ba (right), against individual human rights?” Lacson said. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.