Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday told citizens not to fear a new anti-terrorism law, addressing for the first time the controversial legislation that has unnerved rights groups over potential violations of civil liberties.
The mercurial leader last week signed the anti-terrorism bill, prompting rights groups to stage protests and lawyers to question the law before the Supreme Court.
“For the law-abiding citizen of this country, I am addressing you with all sincerity, do not be afraid if you are not a terrorist,” he said in a televised national address mainly to update Filipinos on the coronavirus outbreak.
Those not planning to bomb churches and public utilities to derail the nation have nothing to fear, Duterte said, adding that communists are among the terrorists.
The conflict between the government and the armed wing of the communist party has raged for half a century and killed more than 40,000 people. In the volatile south, the Philippines faces piracy, kidnappings and extremism by groups influenced by Islamic State, who occupied a southern city in 2017 and are now increasingly carrying out suicide bombings.
The new law creates an anti-terrorism council appointed by the president, which can tag individuals and groups as terrorists and detain them without charge for up to 24 days. It also allows for 90 days of surveillance and wiretaps, and punishments that include life imprisonment without parole.
Local and international human rights groups had said that while the Philippines does have clear security threats, the legislation could be abused to target administration opponents and suppress peaceful dissent.