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Court won’t let Philippines declare Communists as terrorists

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine court has dismissed 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 vowed to appeal but was welcomed by activists who have long rejected the labeling of rebels as terrorists.

Manila regional trial court Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar’s ruling, signed Wednesday, is a legal victory for activists and government critics and a setback for security officials, who have long accused left-wing organizations of covertly serving as legal fronts for the Maoist guerrillas.

The court asked the government to fight the communist insurgency, one of Asia’s longest, with “respect for the right to dissent, to due process and to the rule of law.” It raised concerns over “red-tagging,” or linking activists to insurgents, which it said was a “pernicious practice” that endangers government critics.

“While both rebellion and terrorism may involve the use of violence, the violence in rebellion is directed against government or any part thereof,” the court said in the 135-page decision. “Rebels in a rebellion always target agents of the state such as the military or the police.”

“Terrorism, on the other hand, is directed against the civilian population with the intent to cause the latter extraordinary and widespread fear and panic,” the court said.

Renato Reyes of Bayan, an alliance of left-wing groups, said, “labeling revolutionaries and those engaged in peace negotiations as `terrorists’ is wrong, counter-productive and undermines any possibility of a political settlement in the armed conflict.”

Emmanuel Salamat, a retired marine general who heads a government task force helping oversee efforts to end the decades-long insurgency, told reporters that he was saddened by the court decision because the rebels have committed acts of terrorism, including killings, for many decades.

“This is like disregarding the sacrifices of our troops, the front-liners in the field, our heroes who gave up their lives,” he said. He cited the United States and other countries which have listed the rebel New People’s Army as a terrorist organization.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said the government would appeal.

The court assessed nine separate deadly attacks and acts of violence, including the burning of a chapel and rural houses in a province, which government witnesses said were carried out by communist guerrillas in the country’s south from 2019 to 2020. But it questioned the witnesses’ identification of the attackers as rebels based on their black combat uniforms and firearms.

The court also said that any fear the attacks may have sparked may have been confined to the communities where they occurred and did not reach the “widespread” and “extraordinary” panic of a terrorist strike described under Philippine law. “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 said. It said authorities failed to establish that the attacks were committed to coerce the government to give in to a demand, a key element of terrorism as specified in the law.

The Maoist rebel force was established in 1969 with only about 60 armed fighters in the country’s northern region but it gradually grew and spread across the country.

Battle setbacks, surrenders and infighting, however, have weakened the guerrilla group, which remains a key national security threat. The rebellion has left about 40,000 combatants and civilians dead and stunted economic development in provincial regions, where the military says a few thousand insurgents are still active.

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