THE Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law decree covering Mindanao, a ruling that critics described as a blow to human rights.
Duterte initially imposed military rule across Mindanao—home to about 20 million people—in May last year, when the military was fighting a deadly uprising by pro-Islamic State group militants in Marawi City.
Congress later endorsed his plan to prolong martial rule across the region until the end of 2018. But rights campaigners, warning of a looming dictatorship, asked the Supreme Court in December to block the extension.
“The President and Congress had sufficient factual bases to extend [martial rule],” the court said in a statement Tuesday, summarizing the justices’ 10-5 vote to throw out the petition.
“The rebellion that spawned the Marawi incident persists,” it added, saying public safety required the extension.
Hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the Islamic city of Marawi in May last year in what authorities said was part of an attempt to establish a Southeast Asian base for IS in the mainly Catholic Philippines.
A military campaign took five months to defeat the militants, with the battle claiming more than 1,100 lives and leaving large parts of Marawi in ruins.
Duterte declared in October that the city was “liberated” and military chiefs said militant leaders, including the IS leader in Southeast Asia, had been killed.
But authorities have said that those who escaped are regrouping and recruiting in Mindanao.
Duterte, who is also waging a deadly drug war throughout the country, has repeatedly warned he may impose martial law across the entire nation to fight crime and terrorism.
Martial law is an extremely sensitive issue in the Philippines, after dictator Ferdinand Marcos used military rule to hold on to power a generation ago.
Opponents argued that extended martial law violated a constitutional provision limiting the initial period to 60 days.
However, Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling said the Constitution was “silent” on how many times Congress may extend martial law.
The Supreme Court added that claims of rights violations under martial law were “speculative.”
An Amnesty International report in November said troops detained and tortured civilians trying to flee Marawi.
Opposition lawmaker Edcel Lagman, who was among those who filed the petition, said Tuesday’s ruling would lead to a derogation of civil liberties.
“The Supreme Court verdict will embolden President Rodrigo Duterte in flouting the rule of law,” Lagman said.
Siding with the position of Congress and Malacañang, the majority of the magistrates ruled that the Court has no power to review the decision of Congress to grant the request of the President for an extension of martial law.
“Each House of Congress has full discretionary authority to formulate, adopt and promulgate its own rules; the exercise of this power is generally exempt from judicial supervision and interference,” the Court said in a decision written by Associate Justice Noel Tijam.
The nine justices who concurred with the ruling were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Samuel Martires, Andres Reyes Jr. and Alexander Gesmundo.
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno dissented from the ruling and was joined by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.
The Court said it could only step in once there is clear showing of arbitrary and improvident use of such power by Congress under Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution, which it said is lacking in this case.
The justices also disagreed with the argument of petitioners that the extension should have only been limited to 60 days, saying the Constitution does not fix a period or duration for such an extension and is also actually silent as to how many times the Congress can extend a martial law declaration by the President.
The Court also held that the factual bases for the martial law declaration remain in Mindanao, citing the facts submitted by the Armed Forces during oral arguments last month.
The Armed Forces earlier told the Court that terroristic activities in Mindanao did not end when the government won the war against the Maute Group in Marawi City in October last year.
It revealed that 48 foreign terrorists have in fact arrived in Mindanao and are now actively participating in training recruits, adding that the remaining members of the Maute group intensified their recruitment efforts.
The tribunal also held that the government being unable to sufficiently govern, assure public safety and deliver services is not a requisite for declaration of martial law.
“When the President and Congress ascertain whether public safety requires the declaration and extension of martial law, they do so by calibrating not only the present state of public safety but the further repercussions of the actual rebellion to public safety in the future as well,” it said.
“The Constitution’s requirement is met when there is sufficient factual bases to hold that the present and past acts constituting the actual rebellion are if such greater character that endanger and will endanger public safety,” it added.
Lastly, the Court ruled that there are safeguards against abuse under martial law under the Constitution as it dismissed as speculative the claims of human rights violations by the military.
The defense and military establishment expressed its gratitude to the Supreme Court.
“With the highest court in the land upholding President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration which was approved by Congress, the whole of government can now fully pursue with great vigor its efforts in ending the continuing rebellion in Mindanao decisively,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
AFP spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo was also elated, saying the Court decision would allow them to perform the fresh mandate given them by the President and Congress.
“The decision is a vote of confidence to the AFP and we would like to assure our countrymen that, just as we have done before, the AFP will continue to protect our people against all rebel forces,” Arevalo said.
Lagman expressed his disappointment in the ruling.
“The majority of the Supreme Court justices can be supreme even in their error,” he said.
“When the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court fall in cadence with the President and the Congress in violating the Constitution, then the country is abandoned in the quagmire of tripartite derogation of the people’s civil liberties,” he added.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, also a petitioner, warned that the decision would lead to more violations of human rights.
“This is a tragic day for the cause of human rights. The Supreme Court failed to see the suffering of Mindanaoans who are victims of the military abuses due to martial law,” Zarate said.