By yearend 2019, terrorists in Mindanao had been “weakened” and could “no longer do a Marawi-type operation”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 15 June) – In November last year, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, then the concurrent martial law administrator, declared he was not in favor of  a fourth extension of martial law in Mindanao beyond December 31, 2019 because “matagal na masyado” (it has taken so long) and because terrorists “can no longer do a Marawi-type operation.”

On December 10, then Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo told Malacanang reporters that President Rodrigo Duterte was not going to ask Congress to extend martial law because based on the assessment of security forces and defense advisers “the terrorists and extremist rebellion have been weakened as a result of the capture or neutralization of their leaders; as well as there has been a decrease in the index crime.”

Martial law over Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities, supposedly imposed for a period of 60 days only, indeed took so long: 952 days when it ended on December 31, 2019 after three extensions. President Duterte declared martial law while in Moscow, on Day 1 of the Marawi Siege on May 23, 2017.

Within the 952 days of martial law in Mindanao,  the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao – the enabling act of the 2014 peace agreement between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro — was passed and signed into law in July 2018. It was ratified in January 2019 and by February, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, the body that would govern the BARMM until the first elected officials shall have taken their oath by noon of June 30, 2022, were sworn into office by President Duterte.

The establishment of the BARMM also paved the way for the decommissioning, by phases, of a total of 40,000 combatants and 7,000 weapons of the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces.

By February 2020, local government units in Mindanao had started preparing their respective areas  to prevent the entry and spread of the highly contagious coronavirus disease – COVID-19 – and by mid-March, Mindanao’s provinces and cities were all placed under different types of community quarantines.

While everyone’s attention was focused on COVID-19,  reports circulated that President Duterte certified as urgent the passage of House Bill 6875 or the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. To avoid going into a bicameral conference and further delaying the passage of the bill,  the House leadership adopted the Senate version and allowed no amendments.

Why the urgency in passing an anti-terrorism bill in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic when terrorists in Mindanao had been “weakened” and incapable of doing another “Marawi-type” of operation as of late last year and their movements have also been restricted by the community quarantines this year?

Basilan Rep. and House Deputy Speaker Mujiv Hatmaan, who was locked down in Basilan and attended  sessions via Zoom, said they were also surprised. Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said there were other urgent measures in relation to COVID-19 that were not certified as urgent when they should have been given priority.

The President sent a letter to House Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano on June 1 to  expedite the passage of the bill to “address the urgent need to strengthen the law on anti-terrorism in order to adequately and effectively contain the menace of terrorist acts for the preservation of national security and the promotion of general welfare.”

MindaNews asked National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Monday what is the biggest terror threat given that martial law in Mindanao had in fact been lifted because terrorists “can no longer do a Marawi-type operation” and have been “weakened as a result of the capture or neutralization of their leaders.”

He sent no reply.

Lanao del Norte Rep. Mohamad Khalid Dimaporo, a staunch supporter of President Duterte’s fight against terrorism, abstained from voting on HB 6875 because he wanted to ask, among others, “how important House Bill 6875 is for our country.”

“First, I wanted to know, what is the status now?  We just went through how many
years of martial law and I have reports from the Regional Peace and order Council,  Provincial Peace and order Council that in the Lanao Region we have eradicated the terrorists. So what’s the status now? Why is it so urgent we have an Anti-Terrorism law? Akala ko tapos na tayo dito? (I thought we’re done with this?)

“What is the purpose and why is it so urgent to have an Anti Terrorism law?” he asked, and recalled a discussion with Lorenzana during one of the deliberations on the extension of martial  on how he was going to capture terrorists outside Mindanao without the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus?

Lorenzana, he said, told him cases have been fired against the terrorists and they have standing warrants of arrest.

“If we were able to do it that way, why do we need  House Bill 6875 when we have the capability and the manpower and the ability to file cases (against) terrorists at large. I wanted that answered in the plenary so that at least I have a clean conscience in voting and supporting House Bill 6875,” Dimaporo said.

Eight Mindanawon representatives voted “No” to HB 6875, citing various reasons.

But a Mindanawon who explained his “Yes” vote, also expressed apprehensions about the proposed law’s implementation.

Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers said putting terrorists in custody for long periods – up to maximum of 24 days without charges as proposed by the bill — to extract valuable information from them is ideal “but for those hapless individuals who may be victimized for the flimsiest reason by abusive individuals, how will they be treated?”

“We all know from our rich political history how abusive law enforcers who are backed up by local and national politicians can arrest people on trumped up charges and destroy their lives and future and their families as well. This is the heart of the decades old rebellion that we are fighting until now, without an end in sight still,”  Barbers said.

“We all want peace. We all want to run after terrorists and prevent them from sowing terror and destruction in our lives and property, but if we use this bill against innocent individuals, we ourselves commit terrorism because we wantonly violate their constitutional rights and worse, we too destroy their lives and their future,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)