Top court upholds martial law in Mindanao

Activists clashing with anti-riot police during a protest near the United States Embassy in Manila yesterday. The activists were calling for an end to US military intervention in Marawi and Mindanao. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared
Activists clashing with anti-riot police during a protest near the United States Embassy in Manila yesterday. The activists were calling for an end to US military intervention in Marawi and Mindanao. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law across Mindanao on May 23, after ISIS-linked militants stormed Marawi.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

A top court has upheld Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law across Mindanao, as clashes between government troops and Islamist militants in the island's Marawi City dragged on for a seventh week.

The Philippine Supreme Court yesterday rejected petitions filed by lawmakers and activists questioning Mr Duterte's declaration of martial law on May 23, hours after about 500 militants allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stormed Marawi, a city of about 200,000 people.

The court's key deliberation was over whether there had been a rebellion in Mindanao by extremists plotting to establish an ISIS "province" in Marawi, to justify the measure.

The Supreme Court decided by 14-1 that there was enough justification, but three of the judges said the law did not have to cover all of Mindanao as the rebellion looked to be contained in Marawi alone.

Yesterday, Mr Duterte said his decision was correct, saying "martial law should have been declared a long time ago" when militants began bombings, kidnappings and beheadings across Mindanao, home to a third of the Philippines' population of 103 million.

"For as long as there is one terrorist there in Marawi, this (threat) will not stop," he told reporters.

The Philippine Constitution limits martial law to 60 days, and Mr Duterte must get congressional approval to extend it.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was optimistic that the battle in Marawi would be over before the end of the 60-day period, as the Philippines was getting more help from allies.

The militants are still holding on to a small zone in Marawi's commercial district. The fighting has claimed more than 460 lives and displaced nearly 400,000 people.

Critics opposed to martial law had warned that this could lead to a repeat of the widespread human rights abuses under the two- decade rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Brushing aside such concerns, Mr Duterte said earlier that martial rule "would not be any different from what President Marcos did. I would be harsh".

Life has been routine across much of Mindanao after the introduction of the measure, though dozens of suspected terrorists have been arrested, along with the roll- out of curfews and checkpoints.

Ms Maria Cristina Yambot, a lawyer for one of the lawmakers behind the petition, told Agence France-Presse that they would appeal against the ruling, which she called "disappointing". "We were able to prove the arbitrariness of the declaration," she said.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Top court upholds martial law in Mindanao'. Print Edition | Subscribe