THE New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday said the declaration of martial law in Mindanao threatens to widen the scope of abuses under the Duterte administration.
On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus after the armed Islamist Maute Group attacked Marawi City in Lanao del Sur province and killed 13 soldiers and burned several buildings, including a hospital and a school.
Maute fighters reportedly took a priest and several others hostage.
The HRW noted that the imposition of martial law amid Duterte’s “war on drugs,” in which more than 7,000 people have been killed since June, raises grave concerns of ever-widening human rights violations in the country.
“Duterte’s martial law threatens military abuses in Mindanao that could rival the murderous ‘drug war’ in urban areas,” Phelim Kine, HRW-deputy Asia director, said.
“It’s crucial that the country’s security forces abide by international law at all times and hold rights violators to account,” Kine added.
The international human rights watchdog said placing Mindanao under martial law empowers the Philippine military to supersede civilian authorities in enforcing the law.
In 1972, then-President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law and suspended habeas corpus throughout the Philippines, which facilitated widespread abuses by the military and other security forces, including detention without charge, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
These abuses did not end when martial law was lifted in early 1981. The 1987 Philippine Constitution, which was drafted after Marcos’ overthrow during a “people power” revolution in 1986, places restrictions on the proclamation of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, as well as on their implementation.
Article VII, Section 18 of the Constitution, empowers the President in the event of “invasion or rebellion” to impose martial law and suspend habeas corpus for up to 60 days.
A majority of members of both houses of Congress can revoke—or extend—the proclamation or suspension without the President’s approval.
Also under Section 18, the Supreme Court may review a case brought by any citizen contesting the factual basis for martial law, and must hand down its decision within 30 days.
The Constitution also provides some important due process protections during martial law, Human Rights Watch said.
A state of martial law does not suspend the Constitution, nor replace the functioning of the civil courts or Congress.
It only permits military courts to try civilians when civil courts are unable to function.
Suspension of habeas corpus applies only to people judicially charged for rebellion or offenses linked to invasion, and those arrested or detained must still be charged by the courts within three days or be released.
The HRW said Maute and the Islamist armed group Abu Sayyaf threaten the security of people in parts of Mindanao.
Both groups have pledged support to the Islamic State.
The imposition of martial law throughout Mindanao for at least 60 days, however, could also affect the Philippine armed forces’ handling of other armed conflicts on the island, including with the communist New People’s Army and various Moro insurgent groups, according to HRW.
Expanding the military’s legal authority in these conflicts, it said, opens the door to increased human rights violations against civilians, including leftist activists, indigenous leaders and environmental activists, who have long been targets of military abuses.
“The Philippine government has a responsibility to protect the population from armed militants, but gaining the backing of affected people means abiding by the rule of law,” Kine said. “Martial law is not a free pass for abuse.”
NEIL A. ALCOBER