We need the shelter of the law to shield our freedom

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A headline reads: “President calls protesters who disagree with him terrorists. That puts him in the company of the world’s autocrats’.” No, that news item does not refer to President Duterte nor does it concern the implementation of the dreaded “Anti-Terror Act” that President Duterte signed into law not too long ago. That news story dealt with the recent handling by heavily-armed paramilitary officers belonging to the US Department of Homeland Security wearing camouflage uniform arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon and hauling them off in unmarked cars acting under the orders of President Donald J. Trump who had repeatedly accused anti-racism demonstrators across the US as “terrorists.” The violent crackdown and employment of ruthless tactics against peaceful protesters by the US Homeland security officers, established after 9/11 to deal with terrorism, have no place in a country that flaunts its adherence to democratic principles. It is reminiscent of the repressive regimes when despots and tyrants ruled.

News like this has a chilling effect on peaceful and freedom-loving Filipinos. The passage of the “Anti-Terror Law” only exacerbates the people’s fear about possible abuses by the overzealous authorities in prosecuting counterterrorism activities. They say that only terrorists should be concerned, but who makes the call whether a person is a terrorist or not? Is the definition clear to the enforcer so that the law will not be prone to abuse or misinterpretation? How can an ordinary police officer distinguish civil protest, legitimate advocacy or dissent from terrorism and serious security threat? Does carrying of placards and other propaganda materials against the government and its leaders constitute terrorism or inciting to terrorism?

We have read many instances where our law enforcers have been intolerant of people who were critical of the President and the government and the victims took legal efforts and time to get them freed. And obtaining their release will only happen if we have an impartial prosecutory arm and a truly independent judiciary that will not just act as functionaries obeisant to the wishes of the political leadership. We hold our prosecutors and courts of law in the highest esteem and we trust that they will not betray our people’s trust. Otherwise, the rule of law is just a mirage.

There are now over a dozen petitions lodged before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020”. From the news reports, the issue stems from the lack of a clear and concise definition of what constitutes “terrorism”. In other words, there is allegedly a lack of certainty on the part of the citizens who are covered by the law what they may legally do or may not do under the law. Thus, there seems to be a breach of the general principle that any law, government policy or activity must be predictable, measurable, and most of all easily implementable for the people to follow. Thus, as required in law-making and statutory construction, every law must be clear and unambiguous. The other concern of those opposing the “Anti-Terrorism Law” as presently worded pertains to the exclusive authority of the judge to issue a warrant of arrest upon probable cause personally determined by him after examination under oath or affirmation by the complainant and the witnesses he may produce as provided under Sec. 2 of the Bill of Rights under our Constitution. The judiciary has the monopoly to order the arrest of anyone subject to the requirements stated earlier. The executive department cannot arrogate upon itself the exercise of such judicial function.

The primordial question posed by the various rights groups is: “Should a government with a poor human rights record be granted with additional power which will be prone to abuse?” Doing so may only expand unwarranted use of police power to commit further infringement on people’s liberties to exercise their freedom of expression and right to assembly. Taking a tough line on terrorism is a policy that is encouraged by the national government. There’s no problem with that provided the rights of the people are respected and the rule of law is observed. The rule of law is anathema to arbitrary power and police rule. As defined by the legal authorities, the ‘rule of law’ means all those principles and processes that safeguard the freedom of the individual and guarantee participation in political life.” It is the core ingredient of a democratic government. We can fight terrorism and the evil it brings without giving up the rule of law. Otherwise, the very government becomes an instrument of terrorism, which it seeks to eliminate. When the citizens live under the constant threat of arrest by the State’s minions if they displease the authorities, disgruntlement shall spread and the government shall become unpopular. No amount of counterterrorism shall succeed if the people will not lend it their support. The people need the shelter of the law to shield their freedoms, not to weaponize a statute to erode them.

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