In a major setback for the government, a Manila court dismissed its petition to declare the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, as terrorist groups.
The CPP and NPA were not organized for terrorism, Marlo Magdoza-Malagar, the presiding judge at the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch, said in the ruling on Wednesday that was made public the next day. The communist party and its guerrilla wing have been waging an insurgency against the government since 1969.
“While the armed struggle with the violence that necessarily accompanies it is indubitably the approved means to achieve the CPP-NPA’s purpose, means is not synonymous with purpose,” a portion of the 135-page ruling said.
“Armed struggle is only a means to achieve the CPP’s purpose; it is not the purpose of the creation of the CPP,” it added.
The Department of Justice filed the petition in 2018, citing the Human Security Act of 2007 as a basis. If it had won the case, the government would have been allowed to examine bank accounts of the organizations’ leaders and members.
The HSA law was repealed in 2020 after the Philippines adopted the controversial Anti-Terror Act, a law with more teeth and wider scope. The government can still seek to have the communist groups proscribed under the ATA.
On Thursday, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla told reporters that his office was ready to appeal the decision and, if necessary, elevate it to the Court of Appeals.
“It’s something that the state has to take care of when people are attacking the state. We need to act and we use the law for this purpose. And we will obey the law whatever the case may be,” Remulla told reporters.
Rebellion is not terrorism
In its decision, the court cited nine incidents against civilians in the southern Mindanao region that, according to the government’s petition, were committed by the CPP-NPA. The court said these only qualified as rebellion, not terrorism.
“Terrorism is larger in scope than rebellion; rebellion is only one of the various means by which terrorism can be committed,” the ruling said, citing a previous decision by another Philippine court.
According to the ruling, none of the incidents caused “widespread and extraordinary fear and panic” among the wider population and could instead be characterized as “pocket and sporadic occurrences.” It added that the CPP-NPA’s chosen strategy of guerrilla warfare was also not synonymous with terrorism.
“Perhaps contributing to the low impact of the foregoing atrocities is the CPP-NPA’s chosen battle strategy which is guerrilla warfare within the context of a protracted people’s war,” the court said. “The nine incidents of atrocities fall within the category of small-time ‘hit and run’ attacks and sporadic acts of violence with no specified victims or targets.”
The court also said that the witnesses only identified the alleged suspects based on clothes and firearms.
“This identification leaves much to be desired. Certainly, it takes more than a certain manner or mode of dressing to establish that one is a member of the CPP-NPA,” it said. The Philippines has no law prohibiting membership to communist groups.
Such identification based on clothes and weapons, the court added, is not exclusive in Mindanao, where there are other armed groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, Maute group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and Moro National Liberation Front, among others.
In addition, the court said, the government failed to present evidence proving that incidents in Mindanao were committed on the orders of the communist leadership and that they were done to coerce the state to give in to the groups’ demand.
The court also touched on the dangers of red-tagging individuals. “Red-tagging” is a term activists use when law enforcers accuse groups or individuals of being communist rebels or supporters of the leftist insurgency. A member of mass organizations, the court said, is not always a member of any of the underground movements, much less the CPP-NPA.
The communist party said it welcomed the “reasonable and fair” court decision, calling it a “legal pushback” by some members of the judiciary against the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
The task force and some of its officials have been criticized for its alleged vilification and red-tagging of individuals and groups.
“I think the NTF-ELCAC is now legally obliged to zip its big mouth and stop its terrorist-branding against the CPP and NPA, and its campaign of suppression against workers unions, peasant associations,” CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena said in a statement on Thursday.
“Otherwise, the NTF-ELCAC will probably face legal challenges.”
Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the progressive group Bayan, said it was time for the government to stop its policy of terrorist labeling to address armed conflict.
“The Philippine government should pursue a policy of peace negotiations that address the social basis of the conflict in order to achieve a just and lasting peace,” Reyes said in a statement on Thursday.
Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, former national police chief and the key enforcer of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, expressed regret over the court ruling.
“I feel it’s a waste. Had it been the other way around, it would have been a big help in our anti-insurgency crackdown,” Dela Rosa told reporters on Thursday.
Despite the unfavorable ruling, retired Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, the head of the task force, stood by their claim that the communist group and its armed wing are terrorists.
“[The court has] the right to do that but still the NTF-ELCAC still sustains its previous record. … Even the international community made its stand against the CPP as a foreign terrorist organization,” Salamat said in a televised interview on the same day.
“That’s the funny part. We are here in the Philippines, saying that the CPP-NPA is not a terrorist group, while other international organizations already made strong statements that they are a terrorist group,” he added.
The Philippine government, through the Anti-Terror Council created by the anti-terror law, designated the CPP and NPA as terrorist groups in 2020, as well as 16 other linked organizations in 2022 – further suppressing their funding sources.
The United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and United Kingdom have long designated the CPP-NPA as a foreign terrorist organization.
Jojo Riñoza in Manila contributed to this report.
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