Manila - For a country which could do with a comprehensive anti-terrorism law, one would have thought cheers were in order when two key Philippine parliamentary committees approved a long-delayed anti-terrorism bill less than 36 hours after Bali was once again shaken by terror attacks on Oct 1. But in thePhilippines where nothing happens without a political motive imputed to it, some quarters are describing the draft anti-terror bill as "undeclared martial law".
The House of Representatives' committees on justice and foreign affairs on Oct 4 passed an anti-terror bill which has the full support of President Gloria Arroyo. The bill provides for arrest without warrant, fines of up to 10 million pesos, harsh penalties, such as long imprisonment or death, and limits on the media's access to suspected terrorists.
According to Mr Gabriel Claudio, Mrs Arroyo's political adviser, the bill was "as good as certified". He noted that the Philippines has been left behind by other democratic nations such as the US and the United Kingdom, which have passed laws that enable them to confront the terrorist menace effectively.
However, critics of the bill, such as Representative Rolex Suplico said the bill was "a way of amending the Constitution". He added: "We have already gone past the boundary of creeping martial law. We are already under an undeclared martial law."
Representative Rolio Golez, an author of the anti-terrorism bill, is concerned that its passage is being sped up not only to address international terrorism but also to take "draconian measures against the legitimate political opposition".
"If passed, it would allow the government to charge ralliers, especially leaders, with terrorism on the pretext of 'causing panic'," Mr Golez said:
"I am one of the principal authors of the bill, but I never intended it to cover the political opposition and ralliers. I meant it to address vicious, hardcore terrorists that blow up buildings, ships, etc and commit mass murder," he added.
In a commentary in The Manila Times, Mr Geronimo L Sy said that "civil rights groups and the left are right to raise the spectre of potential abuse with the passage of an anti-terror law".
"It must be stated, however, that the present Constitution and related statues overly protect the rights of the accused…Some quarters ask what happens to the justice for victims when the perpetrators can take their time with the criminal justice system."
He added: "The security of our country and peace in the land require nothing less than a concerted effort from all sectors to craft a law that is responsive and relevant to the times."
* Terror bill sparks fears of creeping martial law (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Oct 6)
* Anti-terror bill 'not meant to protect GMA' (The Manila Times, Oct 6)
* Not another law (The Manila Times, Oct 6)