Manila: Philippine lawmakers have approved a bill allowing warrantless detention and wiretapping of suspected terrorists, which the country's human rights commission says could curb expressions of dissent and other freedoms.
The House of Representatives gave its final approval on the anti-terrorism bill, adopting the Senate's version of the measure that's been certified by President Rodrigo Duterte as urgent.
Bills on economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic await lawmakers' approval, with sessions adjourning this week.
"People are losing jobs. Uncertainty lies in the air. People are hungry, clamoring for direction. Certainly, the timing is very bad," Deputy Minority Leader Janette Garin, a former health secretary, said after the House passed the bill Wednesday night.
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The anti-terrorism bill can now be signed into law by Duterte.
The legislation is needed as current policies lack "the teeth that is required given the current face of international terrorism," Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said in an ABS-CBN interview Wednesday.
The bill's broad definition of terrorism could result in possible abuses, Commission on Human Rights spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia said.
"With the vague and overly broad definition, authorities could wantonly tag exercise of rights as terrorist expressions," she said.
On Tuesday, the House gave its penultimate approval on a bill allocating 1.5 trillion pesos ($30 billion) for infrastructure to create jobs for those displaced by the pandemic. Similar stimulus measures remain pending at the Senate.
Bolstering police powers, surveillance, arrest and detention
Human rights advocates warrned of draconian and arbitrary provisions that could be abused to target Duterte's detractors.
Duterte, who has drawn international criticism for his bloody war on drugs and his human rights record, has certified as urgent the passage of the law that expands the definition of terrorism and bolsters police powers of surveillance, arrest and detention.
Opponents of the bill fear it could be used to suppress free speech and harass those who challenge Duterte, who commands a legislative majority and influence within the judiciary and state institutions.
"We think this is against the constitution," said human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno. "Given the broader definition of terrorism, the administration's critics could be tagged as suspected terrorists."
The bill authorises the government to wiretap suspects, arrest them without warrants and hold them without charge for 14 days, among others provisions.
Opposition lawmaker Edcel Lagman criticised Duterte for prioritising the passage of a bill he described as "draconian" over an economic stimulus package pending congressional approval, which aims to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Duterte was "tightening the noose on suspected terrorists at the expense of the protection of human rights and civil liberties," said Lagman who is also a human rights lawyer.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque dismissed the criticism and said elements of the bill were patterned on those used in countries that had dealt effectively with extremism.
He said the five-month takeover in 2017 of the southern city of Marawi by militants that pledged allegiance to Daesh showed the extent of extremist influence in the country.
"Let us not forget, the remains of Marawi is still there," Roque said.