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Philippines Anti-Terror Law Sparks Outrage

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the Philippines, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte says a new law is needed to fight terrorists. His opponents say that law could be used to suppress activists and ordinary citizens. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Security specialist Sidney Jones (ph) says there's not a terror law anywhere in the world that has struck the perfect balance between human rights protections and what might be called repressive measures. And she says the Philippines' Anti-Terror Act that President Duterte recently signed into law replaces...

SIDNEY JONES: One of the worst anti-terror laws that was ever passed because it had so many safeguards that it was never used - or almost never used.

MCCARTHY: It levied a fine of $10,000 a day on any agency found to have illegally detained a suspect, reason enough for law enforcers to avoid the old law. But does the new law go too far in the other direction? Not for President Duterte, who downplayed the impact of the sweeping new measure in an address to the nation last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: For the law-abiding citizen of this country, I am addressing you with all of sincerity. (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "Don't be scared if you're not a terrorist, if you don't destroy the government, explode churches, explode public utilities or derail the country." But lawyers and activists say the law is not benign. And human rights attorney Neri Colmenares says they have petitioned to the Supreme Court to overturn it on the grounds it is too broad.

NERI COLMENARES: We are saying that this is really an act that penalizes intentions and within the discretion of the government to define.

MCCARTHY: Meaning, he says, you don't have to bomb the bus station to face terror charges. Having the intention to bomb would be enough. Then there's due process. A suspect could be subject to surveillance for up to 90 days and detention without charge for up to 24 days. Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told NPR that the Americans have held suspects in Afghanistan longer.

HERMOGENES ESPERON: And you keep some of them in Guantanamo - right? - for how long?

MCCARTHY: Esperon says the Philippine detention period is far less than Singapore's two-year long warrantless arrest for terrorist suspects. And his country has a genuine security threat, with militants aligned with the Islamic State and a decades' old communist insurgency.

ESPERON: We have become oblivious. We have even become desensitized of the incidents. And now they will interject the matter of human rights.

MCCARTHY: Those rights, says Carnegie Endowment's Aaron Sobel, need to be front and center as populists, like Duterte, across the globe consolidate power through anti-terror laws.

AARON SOBEL: To me, the Philippines is extremely emblematic of that. His firebrand type of speech helped him get elected. And he's used that to erode civilian checks and balances.

MCCARTHY: Attorney Colmenares says, perhaps the most disturbing in the new law is that writings, proclamations or carrying a banner could be construed as inciting to commit terrorism - a new tool, he says, to crush dissent.

COLMENARES: It chills freedom of expression. It chills free speech. It chills freedom of the press. So incitement is, in fact, directly a threat to free speech.

MCCARTHY: National Security Adviser Esperon says activism is not terrorism, and the law expressly says so. With the distrust in the government deep, Colmenares says such safeguards are fake.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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