By Ali G. Macabalang
COTABATO CITY: The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) wants representation in a government body that will oversee the enforcement of the freshly enacted Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) to help ensure that Muslim Filipinos would not be discriminated under the edict.
Bangsamoro Chief Minister Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim expressed the quest in a statement issued on July 4, a day after President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law Republic Act No. 11479, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
During Congressional deliberations, many sectors had staged protests and aired dissent to the passage of the edict. Among the opposing camps was the Bangsamoro parliament, which passed a resolution appealing to the President to veto the legislation.
“It is our fear that among the hardest hit once the Anti-Terrorism Bill passes into law would be the Bangsamoro,” the Chief Minister, himself a member of the parliament, said in a statement accompanying the resolution.
Ebrahim and other parliament members feared that Muslim people as usual would be “easily tagged as terrorists.”
Ebrahim argued that the law has “a very vague definition of terrorism” that opens it up to potential abuses by the police and military.
He said the law allows the government to carry out warrantless arrests of suspected terrorists and hold them without charges for up to 24 days. It removes a requirement that police present suspects before a judge to determine that they were not tortured while in custody.
“I cannot help but be alarmed by the language and foreseeable consequences of the anti-terrorism bill,” he stressed.
“This stems from the long history of … human rights violations and discrimination suffered by the Bangsamoro.”
When “agents of the state are given too much discretion, it often leads to abuses,” the MILF chair also warned.
Several human rights and legal advocacy groups had petitioned the Supreme Court a day earlier to issue an injunction against the law.
Critics of President Duterte have warned that it could be used to stifle legitimate political dissent against his administration.
They fervently objected to the ATL provisions that allow warrantless arrests or searches, and the detention of any suspect in a longer period up to 30 days without filing of required charges.
They also questioned the ATL’s suppression of a civil right on medical referrals for arrested suspects needed to show whether the apprehension process entailed tortures.
Since the call for veto came to naught with the President signing the bill into law on July 3, Ebrahim came up with a new statement appealing to the Chief Executive to designate a representative from the Bangsamoro government to the Anti-Terrorism Council that would govern the new law.
Ebrahim said the autonomous government “respects” the decision of the President in signing the contentious edict into law even as it is concerned.
But he stressed that “the BARMM is open to engage the National Government on preparedness against this vicious phenomenon (of arbitrary tagging), as we collectively explore new potential approaches to holistically protect our people from the menace of terrorism.”
“This engagement can start with the Bangsamoro having representation in the Anti-Terrorism Council,” Ebrahim said, adding that having a seat in the body would help allay fears of people throughout the region particularly Muslim communities across the south.
Recently, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, main proponent of the ATL, said he would find time to meet with BARMM officials to explain the presence of safety measures against undue enforcement of the law, especially among Muslim Filipinos.
Interviewed over a national radio broadcast network, Sen. Lacson said he well understood the sentiments of Muslim Filipino officials, notably the BARMM leaders, in their apprehensions about the new law.
But he assured that the ATL has built-in provisions that will safeguard enforcement from becoming discriminatory to the minority Muslim Filipinos.
Muslim members of the House of Representatives, Congressmen Khalid Dimaporo of Lanao del Norte and Yasser Balindong of Lanao del Sur, had publicized their dissenting votes against the passage of the bill because of some of its uncorrected provisions that wanted amended during deliberation.
Former Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman, now a lone Congressman of Basilan, had also opposed the bill passage, saying the government should have instead strengthened existing local mechanisms that proved effective in addressing Islamic extremism.
Hataman was referring to his province’s initial successes in winning over some 200 members of the terror-prone Abu Sayyaf guerillas back to the fold of law through the provincial campaign called Program Against Violent Extremism.
Ebrahim heads the central committee of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which was once tagged by a past administration as “terrorist” for its armed guerilla campaigns. The tag was later removed when the government renewed peace negotiations with the MILF in protracted talks that eventually led to the passage of law establishing the Bangsamoro region and its governance.
The MILF waged a bloody battle against the government for decades that led eventually to the creation of the BARMM replacing the old autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
ALI G. MACABALANG