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US lawmakers seek end to Philippine military aid

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By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter

TWENTY-FIVE United States lawmakers have filed a bill that seeks to suspend police and military financial assistance to the Philippines as human rights violations are expected to worsen under the Southeast Asian nation’s expanded anti-terror law.

“Across the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal regime is using the pretext of a so-called Anti-Terrorism Law to ramp up efforts targeting labor organizers, workers and political opponents,” US Rep. Susan Wild said as she introduced the bill in plenary. A video of the session was posted on her Facebook page.

“We cannot ignore these abhorrent abuses, nor allow our foreign assistance to be used for the repression of basic rights and dignity,” she said. Philippine funding will be blocked until it meets a set of criteria on human rights, she added.

Among those who co-sponsored the proposed Philippine Human Rights Act were Reps. Jim Costa, Zoe Lofgren, Debra A. Haaland, Janice D. Schakowsky, Ro Khanna, James P. McGovern, Bobby. Rush, Henry C. Johnson, Jr., Andy Levin and Barbara Lee.

The Philippine law allows an anti-terror Council made up of Cabinet officials to perform acts that are otherwise reserved for courts, such as ordering the arrest of suspected terrorists. It also allows the state to keep a suspect in jail without an arrest warrant for 14 days from three days before.

It also considers attacks that cause death or serious injury, extensive damage to property and manufacture, possession, acquisition, transport and supply of weapons or explosives as terrorist acts.

Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque, Jr. belittled the measure, saying it probably won’t get passed. He cited the “close friendship” between Mr. Duterte and US President Donald Trump and the cooperation between the two nations.

Philippine senators said the US bill might violate the visiting forces agreement (VFA) between the United States and Philippines.

“The bill will not only be our loss but theirs as well, considering that a major part of the security assistance being extended to the Philippines is used to combat terrorism, which knows no borders and timing,” Senator Panfilo M. Lacson said in a statement.

“They may have to resolve that as a legal issue in their deliberations.”

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said the Philippines should reconsider the VFA — a two-decade military deal on the deployment of troops for war games — if the US bill gets approved.

The Philippines got $267.75 million in US military funding between 2016 and 2019, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. told the Senate in February. He added that the US had planned to allocate $200 million more in military aid until 2021.

Mr. Duterte suspended Philippine withdrawal from the defense pact amid a global coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates supported the US proposal that was drafted in coordination with Filipino-American community.

“We must condemn it, and do every single thing within our power to stop it,” Shane Larson, senior director for Government Affairs and Policy at Communications Workers of America, said in a statement.

“That starts with mobilizing US lawmakers to approve legislation like the Philippine Human Rights Act,” according to the statement that was also signed by Malaya Movement, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines and Kabataan Alliance.

The US Senate earlier approved a resolution calling on the Philippine government to release Senator Leila M. de Lima and drop criminal charges against Maria A. Ressa, founder of news website Rappler which is critical of the government.

The chamber also condemned the Philippine government for state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings by police and other armed individuals in the war on drugs.

Ms. de Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs who has been detained since February 2017 for drug trafficking, is a “prisoner of conscience, detained solely on account of her political views and the legitimate exercise of her freedom of expression,” according to US Senate Resolution 142.

The lawmaker was indicted for allegedly conspiring to commit illegal drug trading inside the national penitentiary when she was the justice secretary.

The US Senate body also called the arrest of Rappler Executive Editor Maria A. Ressa for cyberlibel and tax-related charges “part of a pattern of weaponizing the rule of law to repress independent media.”

It also called on Mr. Trump to sanction law enforcers and other Philippine officials responsible for drug-related killings and Ms. De Lima’s arrest and detention. These include revoking their US visas and freezing their assets.

US lawmakers also included a provision in their 2020 budget law that bans the entry of Philippine officials involved in Ms. de Lima’s detention.

The Philippines should recognize human rights defenders and their work and allow them to operate freely without fear of reprisal and guarantee press freedom, according to the resolution.

Mr. Duterte on Wednesday defended his deadly war on drugs before the United Nations (UN), accusing some groups of trying to “weaponize” human rights to discredit him.

“The Philippines will continue to protect the human rights of its people especially from the scourge of illegal drugs, criminality and terrorism,” he said in a speech before a virtual roster of world leaders at the UN General Assembly.

Duterte had in the past threatened to cut ties with the UN and European Union, accusing these of interference.

More than 7,000 drug suspects have died under Mr. Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, according to police data, but human rights groups have placed the number at almost 30,000.