The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled as unconstitutional two parts of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) of 2021, or Republic Act No. 11479.
The bill was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on July 3, 2020, without any amendments. The law took effect on July 18, but advocacy groups took it to court for its reported potential to stifle free speech.
The SC, according to an advisory posted by its Public Information Office (PIO), voted 12-3 in favor of the removal of a portion of Section 4 of the bill, which defines terrorism by specifying acts that only intend to cause death or harm.
Section 4(e) reads that "advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights" are not forms of terrorism, then qualifies it as acts "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."
The court moved to declare the provision as unconstitutional "for being overbroad and violative of freedom of expression."
Petitioners moved that the entirety of Section 4 be revised, but counsel Theodore Te and senatorial hopeful Atty. Chel Diokno, both from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), has called the decision an "important win for the protection of civil liberties."
FLAG's reaction to the Advisory on the ATA vote. FLAG was counsel for petitioners in GR No. 252741 (Ceres Doyo, et al. v. Medialdea, et al.), one of the petitions challenging RA 11479 and consolidated with 36 other petitions. pic.twitter.com/uEy8ija97E— Ted Te (@TedTe) December 9, 2021
FLAG reserved further comment pending the release of the full decision, which would also show a breakdown of how the court voted.
The court also voted 9-6 in favor of striking down the second method of designation under Section 25, which states that the Anti-Terrorism Council may designate a person or group as a terrorist as requested by other countries or jurisdictions given that it meets the criteria of the United Nations Security Council Resolution.
The PIO also stated that all the other challenged provisions of the law, which are the subject of other petitions, “are not unconstitutional.”
“The main ponencia (decision) and the various opinions contain interpretations of some of the provisions declared in these cases as not unconstitutional,” the PIO advisory read.
Progressive groups have called the decision a "partial victory."
Our main win from the SC ruling on the terror law is that ACTIVISM IS NOT TERRORISM. This is a partial victory for petitioners as protests and advocacy are not acts of terror. But the dangerous provisions of the terror law remain and can still be abused. #JUNKTERRORLAW— Renato Reyes, Jr. (@natoreyes) December 9, 2021
'Vague and susceptible to abuse'
Others were also more cautious, after the court rejected challenges to other provisions.
"We welcome the striking down of the 'killer caveat'," said environmental activist network Kalikasan.
But it noted the court upheld "the draconian powers of the Anti-Terrorism Council that arrests, harasses, and murders with zero regard of your legal standing."
The anti-terrorism council, comprised of members of Duterte's cabinet, can order the warrantless arrest of anyone they deem a terrorist.
Suspects can be detained for up to 24 days without charge.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan, said other sections of the law remained "largely vague and susceptible to subjective interpretations and therefore, abuse."
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon declined to comment until he had also seen the ruling.
The government has argued the law is needed to combat terrorism in the country's south, where communist and Islamist groups have waged long-running insurgencies.
But UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet previously expressed concerns the law could blur the distinction between criticism and criminality.
Several opponents of Duterte's administration have been put behind bars, including opposition Senator Leila de Lima who faces drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
Veteran journalist Maria Ressa, a co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize and one of the petitioners challenging the anti-terrorism law, is on bail pending an appeal against a conviction last year in a cyber libel case. (with a report from AFP)