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DOJ official says anti-terror bill exemption on dissent should ‘calm’ concerns

As the Department of Justice (DOJ) reviews the anti-terrorism bill, an official on Monday said one of its provisions should "calm" concerns about abuses that may be committed using the proposed law.

The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is up for the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte, who had certified the bill as urgent, after it hurdled both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The bill seeks to replace the Human Security Act of 2007, the country's existing anti-terrorism law. It is under this 2007 law that the government has asked a court in Manila to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army as terrorist organizations.

Critics of the bill have expressed concern that the measure once enacted could empower the government to stifle legitimate dissent. Asked about this at the Laging Handa briefing, Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete initially said it might be "premature" to issue the DOJ's opinion but went on to discuss his "cursory reading" of the bill.

He said the law appears to require several elements for a specific act to be considered a terrorist act.

"I would just probably, to answer that question, bring attention to one of the provisions of the law which says na hindi niya in essence pinipigilan 'yung dissent, 'yung opposition, 'yung criticism against the government," he added.

"That I think should somehow calm 'yung concerns of certain quarters over the possible abuses diumano na posibleng ma-commit using the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020," the official said.

The anti-terrorism bill defines terrorism as being committed by a person who engages in activities intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endanger's a person's life, as well as extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place or private property.

According to the proposed measure, terrorism is also committed by a person who engages in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage or destruction to critical infrastructure, and develops, manufactures, possesses, acquires, transports, supplies, or uses weapons, explosives or of biological, nuclear, radiological or chemical weapons.

The release of dangerous substances, or causing fires, floods, or explosions to intimidate the public, create an atmosphere or spread a message of fear, among several other purposes, is also considered terrorism by the bill.

Terrorism, according to the bill, does not include "advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights, which are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person's life, or to create a serious risk to public safety."

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Saturday that the DOJ will start reviewing the bill despite the Office of the President not having requested the department's comments yet.

"The DOJ's task is not to interfere with governmental policy but to determine if the provisions of any enrolled bill are in accordance with the Constitution," Guevarra said.

"I would like to believe that we have consistently and objectively discharged this duty," he added.

Perete said the DOJ hopes to expedite its opinion on the proposed law.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, who authored the bill at the Senate, said recalling the bill is unlikely even as he admitted that the DOJ "can interfere."

Retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio has said the bill, once it becomes a law, could be subject to a "facial challenge" before the Supreme Court, which means it could be alleged to be unconstitutional even before there is an allegation that its application violated a person's rights. — BM, GMA News