Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has accused several Catholic bishops of having links to narcotics syndicates and of involvement in a seditious campaign to foment unrest.
The government has also frozen funds of Catholic missionary groups and has slapped charges against church workers, claiming they provide support to “terrorist organizations.”
Bishops, priests, nuns, and lay workers have fought back in the courts, in media, and on the streets.
Proposed changes to the country’s Human Security Act, however, could constrict the right to a proper defense and the right to seek redress against unjust prosecution.
On Feb. 26, the Philippine Senate passed Senate Bill 1083.
The proposed law provides “a strong legal structure” to exact accountability from persons and groups “who have committed, are about to commit, or are supporting those who commit terroristic acts.”
In the House of Representatives, allies of the president say they may adopt the Senate version to come up with a final vote on March 10.
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan, one of only two senators who voted no to the proposed legislation, says “the proposed new definition of terrorism is too vague and encompassing.”
He says it is open to abuse because the “simplest mobilization or common crimes” can be tagged as acts of terrorism.
The measure includes a list of activities that would place workers on the barricades, striking transport groups, and communities blockading the entry and egress of mining equipment, on the same plane as those who bomb facilities and hold people hostage.
Church workers, rights groups and environmental activists — frequently tagged as conspirators by the government — can face life imprisonment for activities that are now covered by regular penal laws.
Under the proposed law, suspects face warrantless detention for 14 days, leaving them to the mercy of soldiers and police in a game of “arrest-and-detain-now, produce-or-invent-evidence-later.”
The proposed law does require law enforcers to notify the Commission on Human Rights when they detain persons, but it scraps indemnity for wrongful detention.
The measure also gives a green light to two-month surveillance by state security forces and gives them the power to compel telecommunications firms to divulge calls and messages without warrant.
But human rights advocates say there is little in the new measure that would nip the ability of armed groups to wreak havoc. Instead, the new law focuses its fire on legal dissenters.
That has kept the Duterte government busy over the past three years.
The Court of Appeals last year rebuffed a government suit to proscribe more than 600 persons as terrorists, with a list that included clergy and lay workers, legislators, farmer leaders, tribal elders and even U.N. experts.
The new measure allows regional trial courts to outlaw an organization as “terrorist” just as the space for independent decision-making has constricted around courts.
Judges have been killed in the country after dismissing cases against rebel suspects. A military general last year also called for a probe of prosecutors and judges who throw out cases against activists.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the proposed law, as a whole, represent “preliminary proscription of suspected terrorist organizations prior to their being given an opportunity to be heard.”
Simply put, members of legal organizations, including church aid groups, could wind up with the official tag of “terrorist” overnight, with no opportunity to challenge government claims.
Last year, Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila has come to the defense of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, which has been tagged as having links with the rebels by the military.
The bishop came to the defense of the Protestant group, calling it a leading faith-based and humanitarian organization committed to delivering social services to the poor.
Together with the Protestant council, more than 50 local and international organizations were also accused by the military of “wittingly or unwittingly” aiding the “communist terrorist groups.”
The list included the Diocesan Social Action Center of Kalibo, Caritas Australia, Caritas Austria, Caritas Belgium, Caritas Switzerland, Save the Children Foundation, Bread for the World, Oxfam International, Swedish Red Cross, and Mercy Relief.
Bishop Pabillo, however, said that it is “inherent to churches and aid organizations to provide help to everyone who is in need especially in times of disaster, regardless of political or religious beliefs.”
“We do not ask a victim of a calamity if he or she is a communist before giving assistance,” said the Manila prelate.
Four years into Duterte’s term of office, the government might just succeed in making a terrorist of every Good Samaritan in the country.
Inday is an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. She is a recipient of the “Prize for Independence” of the Reporters Without Borders in 2018. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.