Manila, Philippines – A Filipino court rejected a government petition to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed guerrilla wing as a terrorist organization in a decision that officials promised to appeal but was welcomed by activists who have long rejected the labeling of rebels as terrorists.
The ruling of Manila Regional Court Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar, signed Wednesday, is a legal victory for government activists and critics and a setback for security officials, who have long suspected leftist organizations secretly serving as legal front for Maoist guerrillas.
The court asked the government to fight the communist uprising, one of the longest in Asia, in “respect for the right to dissent, due process and the rule of law”. He raised concerns about “red-tagging” or the link between activists and rebels, which he said was a “pernicious practice” that endangered critics of the government.
“Although both rebellion and terrorism may involve the use of violence, the violence in the rebellion is directed against the government or any part of it,” the court said in the 135-page decision. “The rebels in a rebellion always target state agents such as the military or the police.”
“Terrorism, on the other hand, is directed against the civilian population with the intent of arousing extraordinary and widespread fear and panic in the latter,” the court said.
Renato Reyes of Bayan, an alliance of leftist groups, said that “labeling revolutionaries and those engaged in peace negotiations as ‘terrorists’ is wrong, counterproductive and undermines any possibility of a political solution in the armed conflict”.
Emmanuel Salamat, a retired navy general who heads a government task force that helps oversee efforts to end the 10-year insurgency, told reporters he was saddened by the court’s decision because the rebels committed acts of terrorism, including whose killings, for many decades.
“It’s like ignoring the sacrifices of our troops, the first in the field, our heroes who gave their lives,” he said. He cited the United States and other countries that listed the rebel New People’s Army as a terrorist organization.
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said the government will appeal.
The court assessed nine different deadly attacks and acts of violence, including the burning of a chapel and rural houses in a province, which according to government witnesses were perpetrated by communist guerrillas in the south of the country from 2019 to 2020. But questioned the witnesses’ identification of the attackers as rebels based on their black combat uniforms and firearms.
The court also said that any fear raised by the attacks may have been confined to the communities in which they occurred and did not achieve the “widespread” and “extraordinary” panic of a terrorist attack described by Philippine law. “The nine episodes of atrocities fall into the category of small hit and run attacks and sporadic acts of violence with no victims or specified targets,” the court said. He said authorities failed to establish that the attacks were committed to force the government to yield to a claim, a key element of terrorism as specified in the law.
The Maoist rebel force was founded in 1969 with only about sixty armed fighters in the northern region of the country, but has gradually grown and spread across the country.
The setbacks, surrenders and infighting, however, have weakened the guerrilla group, which remains a major threat to national security. The rebellion claimed the lives of some 40,000 fighters and civilians and slowed economic development in the provincial regions, where the military said several thousand rebels are still active.