[PHOTO AT LEFT - ALMOST FULL HOUSE: Congressmen take their seats at the start of the special session yesterday. Photo by BOY SANTOS]

MANILA, FEBRUARY 20, 2007 (STAR) The House of Representatives ratified the anti-terrorism bill last night and approved the bicameral conference committee report on it, paving the way for President Arroyo to sign the long-awaited bill into law.

A majority of the 172 members of the House who attended the start of the two-day special session of Congress yesterday voted to ratify the measure, to be known as the Human Security Act of 2007.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said the approval of the measure by both chambers of Congress is a "major step to enhancing the Philippines’ capability to meet threats from regional and global terrorism and would greatly help the country’s efforts (in waging) war against all forms of terrorism."

Malacañang had earlier urged Congress to complete its work on the anti-terrorism bill and other priority measures during the two-day special session.

In a statement, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the anti-terrorism bill is "not only the country’s commitment to the international community, but an imperative for a society of law and order that can sustain economic growth and prosperity."

Even before the ratification of the priority measure, Bunye said, "We thank Congress for responding to the urgency of completing the anti-terrorism bill and other measures that need to be passed in the national interest."

President Arroyo herself reiterated the need to pass the anti-terrorism measure during the inauguration of the Teletech Business Process Outsourcing Center in Dumaguete City.

According to the President, a holistic approach should be taken in the campaign against insurgency and the anti-terrorism law is one of the vital ingredients to this approach.

The anti-terrorism bill was one of the measures certified urgent by the President and has been highly anticipated by the international community, particularly by the US.

De Venecia had called for the special sessions so his chamber could act on a number of measures, which they failed to do before Congress adjourned for the elections on Feb. 8.

The special session in the House was delayed slightly by the death of Nueva Ecija Rep. Antonio Serapio, 69. Serapio had died in a car accident earlier in the day, apparently after suffering from a heart attack while driving.

The bicameral conference committee report on the anti-terrorism bill was ratified by the Senate on the last day of sessions, but the House failed to do the same because it lacked quorum.

In the first meeting of the bicameral conference committee, it was decided that the Senate version would be adopted, paving the way for the immediate approval of the committee report.

The anti-terrorism measure is one of the most controversial bills tackled by Congress with the members of the political opposition expressing concern that it could be used by the administration against them.

In the Senate, after much debate, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who sponsored the bill, accepted almost all of the amendments introduced by Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

The anti-terrorism measure, once passed into law, will allow authorities to detain suspects for three days without court warrant or the filing of formal charges. Police had asked that the detention period be set at one month.

Police also sought the death penalty for convicted terrorists, but Congress had abolished capital punishment in June last year.

Persons "wrongly arrested" or detained as terrorism suspects will be entitled to compensation under the new regulations.

While the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill last year, the Senate only passed its draft earlier this month, after activists expressed concerns that the anti-terrorism bill infringed on basic civil rights.

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), a militant leftist group, said the definition of terrorism under the measure was "too broad and vague and may include legitimate forms of dissent.

"As soon as Mrs. Arroyo signs the anti-terrorism act, we go to the Supreme Court," Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said as the group protested outside the Batasang Pambansa complex in Quezon City.

"We also plan to come up with a list of senatorial and congressional candidates who voted for the passage of the bill, so the public may consider this an election issue," Reyes said in a press statement.

He said that while Section III of the measure defines terrorist act as "sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand," the bill "does not qualify what constitutes a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic."

"We’re not going to let Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez define these things for us," he added.

Besides the anti-terrorism measure, De Venecia cited the following bills that the House would be working on: the tax amnesty bill, tourism act, amendment of the Intellectual Property Code of the Philippines to bring down the cost of medicine, the bill calling for the planting of one billion trees, the political party reform bill, the compensation of human rights victims during the martial law period, a bill providing for new special economic zones and the rationalization of tax incentives.

Presidential Legislative Liaison Office head Gabriel Claudio, for his part, urged Congress to try to pass at least three other measures apart from the anti-terrorism bill.

He cited the tourism act, cheap medicines bill and the one billion trees measure as those that can be accommodated, since they are not controversial and are socially relevant.

The tourism act and cheap medicines bill have both been approved on third and final reading in the Senate.

"The minimum output is the anti-terrorism bill but, hopefully, three (more) can also be included," Claudio said.

As the House struggled to gather a quorum, the Senate managed to pass six bills and 40 other items of local legislation in less than two hours after Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. banged the gavel to begin the two-day special legislative sessions in the Senate.

Among the bills passed by the Senate were the "Lemon law" introduced by Sen. Manuel Roxas II protecting consumers who unwittingly purchase defective but brand-new cars; the bill seeking to penalize hospitals and clinics which refuse to release patients with unpaid bills and: the Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, which seeks to institute a mechanism for the prevention, abatement, mitigation and control of oil pollution within the country’s territorial boundaries.

The 40 other items on the Senate’s legislative agenda include bills renaming streets that were sponsored by Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., who chairs the Senate committee on public works, as well as bills renaming public schools that were filed by Sen. Ralph Recto and the measures seeking to institute reforms in marine research, fishery and agriculture development filed by Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr.

In an interview before the special session began, Villar said the Senate will do its part to push for the ratification of several bills – including the anti-terrorism law. – Jess Diaz, Delon Porcalla, Marvin Sy, Christina Mendez and AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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