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Another year of martial law in Mindanao

With a vote of 235-28-1, the Seventeenth Congress approved on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, the request of President Rodrigo Duterte to extend martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao for another year, or until the end of 2019. This is the third extension granted to the President, who had declared martial rule in the southern island after terrorist groups besieged Marawi City on May 23, 2017, sparking a months-long clash, causing a diaspora of its residents, and leaving the city in ruins. They had previously granted Duterte’s request for an initial five-month martial law extension, which ended on December 31, 2017, and a second extension until December 31, 2018.

Some governors and mayors from Mindanao supported the recommendation of the AFP and PNP for a third martial law extension, especially in light of the plebiscite in January 2019 and the May elections. They are convinced that military rule makes it easier to enforce laws and keep communities peaceful. They also noted that there have been no known abuses from the start. This was followed by a letter from the President addressed to Congress formally requesting the 2019 extension.

However, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman oppose the extension, saying that the recommendation and letter failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove that a third extension of martial law in Mindanao is needed to suppress rebellion and to develop the southern island. Leader Drilon claims that the grounds cited in Duterte’s request do not show actual uprising, actual rebellion, and actual armed uprising.

On January 4, seven opposition representatives filed a petition assailing the constitutionality of the third extension of martial rule and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao. The same group has previously challenged the factual basis of the two prior martial law declarations. They insist that that the southern island is no longer imperiled because the rebellion has been subdued. They claim that there is no actual ongoing uprising against the government. The petitioners further argued there is no need for another extension as it had served its purpose when the government ended the Marawi siege and defeated the Maute group and a faction of the Abu Sayyaf on October 2017.

Martial law should not be confused with a state of public safety. It is not meant to be a long-term solution for peace and order. Rather, martial law is a legal and military measure to provide efficient rule in times of rebellion or invasion. Mindanao needs peace and order and martial law can help achieve that. However, as Congressman Lagman says, it would be a ‘grievous fallacy’ to extend martial law to serve as a development instrument to sustain progress. Its constitutional purpose, after all, is to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, or rebellion.

On January 22 and 23, 2018, the Supreme Court is to hold oral arguments on this petition. The pertinent issue is whether there exists a state of rebellion to satisfy the constitutional requirement to declare martial law. The petitioners would have to overcome not only the claim that the rebellion persists, but also the previous ruling of the Supreme Court which gives President Duterte an almost absolute discretion to claim a state of rebellion and declare martial law.

The Constitution grants the President Commander-in-Chief powers. These include having the sole discretion to declare martial law or suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in case of invasion or rebellion or when public safety requires it. The same, however, provides safeguards against possible abuses of the President’s powers, such as declaring martial law or suspending the privilege of the writ only after probable cause convinced by a sufficient factual basis, limiting the initial declaration to sixty days. The declaration or suspension may be revoked or extended by Congress and reviewed by the Supreme Court.

“A series of long extensions makes the duration of martial law in virtual perpetuity,” Lagman said. With this declaration, martial law in Mindanao would last over two and a half years, a total of 891 days.

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