A week of cases: Legal actions cast more doubt on ‘dangerous’ anti-terror law

THE ANTI-TERRORISM Act (ATA) is one of the most contested laws in Philippine history. Since it was signed into law in 2020, the ATA has been repeatedly challenged before the Supreme Court. This week, the law continued to hog the headlines of some of the media. 

After its signing, the ATA has faced a barage of petitions – 37 so far – filed before the High Court by academics, religious leaders, journalists, and other members of civil society, all questioning its constitutionality. They want to suspend the law’s enforcement because of its allegedly vague and unconstitutional provisions. Media analyzed and scrutinized the ATA’s implementing rules and regulations and called attention to its problematic features. 

Fast forward to three years later and the law is in full swing. In a week, from November 20 to November 27, 2023, five cases that point to various sections of ATA and other laws used against activists were reported by the media. But, unlike before when explainers and various sources in the news were used, these have been reported quickly and as separate incidents. As the media reported it this time, many seemed to have missed the bigger picture; critics and rights advocates have called out the ATA early on.

Five in a Week

CMFR provides the following record of cases that showed how the ATA continues to reveal its flaws and how challenges to these flaws were covered by some of the media. 

  • On November 20, Associate City Prosecutor Christian Castro of Santa Rosa, Laguna, dismissed all terrorism charges against Tanggol Batangan spokesperson Hailey Pecayo and other activists due to insufficiency of evidence.

ABS-CBN News, Rappler, GMA Integrated News, and Bulatlat reported that the Laguna prosecutor junked the complaint filed against Pecayo and 15 others over alleged violation of the anti-terror law, RA 9851 or the Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide, and Other Crimes Against Humanity, and attempted murder. Corporal Ivan Neil Ogatis and Sergeant Jean Claude Bajaro of the 59th Infantry Batallion of the Philippine Army, the complainants, claimed that the case stemmed from an alleged encounter between soldiers and alleged members of the New People’s Army in Taysan, Batangas, in July 2022.

Apart from the resolution, Rappler’s Lian Buan described Pecayo and her work in a humane way, sharing how Pecayo started as an activist and explaining her relationship with her family. Buan also noted that “Pecayo’s win follows a string of a sustained pattern in the last three years of activists winning cases filed against them by the country’s security officials.” 

  • On November 23, four leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) challenged their designation as “terrorists” by the Anti-Terrorism Council. CPA called the petition a “landmark” case since this is the first legal action that seeks to overturn a terrorist designation.

ABS-CBN News, Philstar.com, Manila Standard, GMA Integrated News, Rappler, and Bulatlat reported that Windel Bolinget, Sarah Abellon-Alikes, Jennifer Awingan-Taggaoa, and Stephen Tauli were designated as terrorists by the council in June 2023 and their assets were frozen by the Anti-Money Laundering Council. Petitioners alleged that their terrorist designation was “arbitrary and unconstitutional” because they were deprived of due process and the opportunity to contest the designation. They also cited CPA’s registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission, participation in United Nations processes, and cooperation with various government agencies.

ABS-CBN’s Mike Navallo correctly recalled specific attacks against the CPA leaders, such as red-tagging on social media by the Philippine military, declaration of the CPA as persona non grata by some local government units, and the abduction and mauling of Tauli. Philstar.com noted other activists such as Mindanao-based May Casilao and community health worker Dr. Natividad Castro who were also accused of being terrorists. 

  • On November 23, Antipolo City Prosecutor Kristoffer Ryan Tayhopon junked the complaint against paralegals Jasmin Rubia and Kenneth Rementilla for lack of probable cause. Rubia and Rementilla were accused of providing material support to Pecayo.

ABS-CBN News, Rappler, GMA Integrated News, and Philstar.com reported that the act of providing an “organized transportation” in going to a wake is “not providing material support to a terrorist.” The two paralegals were part of a quick response team formed to investigate the death of a nine-year old child who was killed during a gunfight between soldiers and the NPA. Sergeant Jean Claude Bajaro claimed that the two paralegals gave Pecayo a ride to attend the wake of the child. The charges against Pecayo were earlier junked due to lack of evidence.

Rappler’s Jairo Bolledo correctly pointed out that these legal victories are the latest win since 2021, when an Olongapo court junked the first known ATA case against two Aetas, Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, who were accused of being NPA members. The court sided with the Aetas, saying the witnesses against them made “blatant inconsistencies.”

  • On November 24, Assistant Provincial Prosecutor Edwin Mosura Culla of Batangas dismissed two charges against peasant organizer Ernesto Baez Jr., driver Jose Escobio, and companion Jonald Jabonero, citing lack of probable cause.

As of writing, only Bulatlat reported that the Batangas prosecutor dismissed the charges against Baez and his companions, who were accused of links to the NPA. The prosecutor noted that their rights were violated because of an unreasonable search and seizure. The three were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives and were arrested on August 24 in San Juan, Batangas.

CMFR notes that in August, Malaya and Manila Times described Baez as a “NPA bomb-maker” in their headlines. However, after the recent resolution, they have yet to correct and update their reports that had only the military’s side.

  • On November 25, human rights group Karapatan lauded the dismissal of a petition for certiorari directed at 10 of its members, which included seven of its national officers. In a decision dated November 17, the Quezon City Regional Trial Court dismissed the petition for certiorari filed by former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., and incumbent adviser Eduardo Año. The dismissed petition sought to overturn a decision acquitting 10 activists of perjury. 

As of writing, only Inquirer.net and The Philippine Star reported that Año and Esperon “failed to allege material facts constitutive of such ill will.” Those acquitted were seven members of Karapatan, two officers of women’s group Gabriela, and a member of church group Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. 

Vague Sections, Definite Attacks

Some of these reports correctly referenced provisions of the ATA that, as CMFR previously pointed out, unleashed the forces of state power against its own citizens, legitimized the dismissal of judicial processes, and made vulnerable anyone who questioned government actions.

However, CMFR notes that all of the cases mentioned above were only reported online, with only one published in print.

The recent cases and reports allow a closer look at the ATA’s specific sections, among them:

  • Section 4. Terrorism
  • Section 12. Providing material support to terrorists
  • Section 25. Designation of Terrorist Individual, Groups of Persons, Organizations or Associations
  • Section 35. AMLC to Investigate, Inquire Into, and Examine Bank Deposits

These sections all point to what critics refer to as vague and overbroad definitions, which validates the fear of citizens and journalists themselves of being easily branded as terrorists.

The cases also showed that while sections of the law may be vague, the attacks are specific: red-tagging on social media, arrests, abduction, and freezing of accounts. All this took a personal toll on the activists. Apart from the text of the rulings or resolutions, media’s stories that humanize these cases — such as Buan’s report on Pecayo — are welcome. In reporting cases on ATA and the weaponization of the law, the media cannot leave out the Duterte regime’s strong emphasis on law enforcement as a way of addressing criticism. They also cannot ignore how President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is not really turning the tide against this assault on civil liberties, choosing instead to keep mum.