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6 UN experts flag ‘unchecked’ antiterror powers in letter to Marcos

Days before the full implementation of the antiterrorism law, six United Nations experts made public a letter they wrote in October asking the government to explain cases of “judicial harassment, office raids and targeted financial sanctions” on rights watchdogs and its “seemingly unchecked powers” to run after suspected terrorists.

In the 19-page letter dated Oct. 10, 2023, the UN special rapporteurs sought an explanation for alleged human rights violations carried out by the Marcos administration in pursuit of antiterrorism policies, including Republic Act (RA) No. 11479, which is to be fully enforced starting Jan. 15 under guidelines recently approved by the Supreme Court.

They expressed “serious concern about the seemingly broad and unchecked executive powers… particularly the discretion of the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate individuals and organizations as ‘terrorist’ and the Anti-Money Laundering Council to adopt targeted financial sanctions thereafter.”

They also cautioned the government against using its counterterrorism financing oversight powers “in a broad and arbitrary manner,” especially against nonprofit organizations and individuals, lest it disregards the country’s human rights obligations under international law.

Respond in 60 days

The Oct. 10, 2023, letter was signed by Fionnuala Ni Aolain, special rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism; Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; José Francisco Cali Tzay, special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; and Nazila Ghanea, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The rapporteurs made the letter public this month apparently after failing to get a response from the government.

They earlier warned to have it published through their communications reporting website and include it in their regular report to the UN Human Rights Council if the government failed to respond to their concerns within 60 days.

Earlier in January, the Supreme Court said it approved and adopted the “Rules on the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020 and Related Laws,” in response to concerns about the law’s impact on civil liberties.

In December 2021, the high court declared RA 11479 constitutional except for two provisions, rejecting at least 37 petitions that sought to have the law voided.

The rights group Karapatan said the UN rapporteurs’ letter was an indication of the administration’s “utter lack of interest” in addressing what it considered a grave human rights situation in the country.

Frozen accounts, terror tag

Among the cases cited in the letter was the 2019 freezing of assets and bank accounts of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, two church groups accused of providing financial assistance to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

The rapporteurs also cited the arrests and harassment of several priests from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, who were also accused of helping communist rebels.

The rapporteurs also flagged the alleged “unlawful seizure” of at least P557,360 in cash from RMP lay worker Mariel Domequil and Eastern Vista journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, now both detained and facing terrorism financing charges.

‘Observable trend’

The rapporteurs noted that the complaints “involved incidents that took place before the Anti-Terrorism Council was granted the power to designate terrorist organizations under the Anti-Terrorism Act.”

The UN experts also asked the Marcos administration to explain the “legal and factual basis” for designating some members of the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance—namely Florence Kang, Niño Joseph Oconer, Lucia Lourdes Gimenez, Jennifer Awingan-Taggaoa, Windel Bolinget, Stephen Tauli and Sarah Abellon Alikes—as terrorists.

Before they were listed as terrorists, Kang and her fellow indigenous rights defenders were Red-tagged or linked by the military to the communist insurgency.

The UN rapporteurs defended Bolinget in particular for being “actively involved in several UN bodies and mechanisms” and noted that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) had once accused him of “infiltrating the United Nations.”

“There appears to be an observable trend in the Philippines, whereby individuals and groups associated with churches, who are living out their faith through development and humanitarian work, have been linked by the government to CPP-NPA-NDFP (National Democratic Front of the Philippines, CPP’s political wing),” they added.

Amnesty to rebels

The rapporteurs asked the administration to provide information on the “due process and fair trial safeguards” for those who were designated as terrorists, had their assets frozen or are now facing charges for sedition or rebellion.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said there was no conflict between the new rules on terrorism cases and the grant of amnesty to former communist rebels, some of whom had been designated terrorists.

“It is believed that the two are mutually exclusive and the law can be implemented despite the ongoing talks for amnesty,” DOJ spokesperson Mico Clavano said during a virtual forum organized by NTF-Elcac.

But Clavano acknowledged that the rules may affect the status of certain groups that would be granted amnesty.

“The acts of terrorism, if still done during the talks, can still be prosecuted under the law. So I guess, it’s a matter of good faith. If these groups are willing to come forward and they agree to a ceasefire, then there’s no need for any prosecution under the ATA,” Clavano said.

“But if they come forward and they represent themselves as in good faith and yet still continue activities that will fall under the ATA, then they can also be prosecuted,” he added. —WITH A REPORT FROM TINA G. SANTOS

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