A much maligned new anti-terror law is needed for battling al-Qaida-linked militants more effectively and to protect human rights by forcing Philippines authorities to operate within a legal framework, a terrorism expert said Friday.
Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said the Human Security Act that takes effect Sunday has been watered down but could be revised later to make it a more potent weapon against terrorists.
"I think the counterterrorism law is very weak, but the government has to implement it," Gunaratna told The Associated Press by telephone. "It's a good starting point."
Philippine forces have dealt with terror threats for years but have been accused of extra-judicial killings. If enforced properly, the new law will protect human rights by drawing a legal line that anti-terror units must not cross, he said.
Considering the legitimate terror threats confronting the country, "people living outside the Philippines are shocked that the country did not have anti-terrorism legislation," he said.
The views of Gunaratna, author of the 2002 book "Inside Al-Qaida," mirror those of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government.
Arroyo, one of Washington's staunchest Asian allies in the war on terror, says the new law will be indispensable in stamping out the terrorists who target innocent people, discourage investors and have destroyed critical infrastructure like cell phone transmission towers.
But human rights groups have condemned the new law, and even the influential Roman Catholic Church has called for a review of sensitive provisions that could curtail rights and invade privacy, including one that allows court-authorized wiretapping of suspects.
Hundreds of left-wing activists urged the law's repeal during a protest Friday, vowing to question its legality before the Supreme Court.
"It's a license to kill," protest leader Renato Reyes said. "In the hands of an abusive government, it all the more becomes a dangerous law."
A chief proponent of the law, Defense Undersecretary Ric Blancaflor, said the law has been undercut by safeguards from legislators to prevent official abuses, including a clear ban on torturing suspects.
The law, signed by Arroyo in March, allows detention of suspected terrorists without charge for three days and includes "rebellion or insurrection" among crimes considered terrorism.
It has been welcomed by the United States, which is backing a counterterrorism campaign in a country seen as a breeding ground of Muslim militants in Southeast Asia.