MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said that he would suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the Visayas as a “precautionary measure” if the violence spills into the Central Philippines as fighting between security forces and Islamist fighters continues in Marawi City.
Speaking during the 119th founding anniversary of the Philippine Navy, Duterte said that he hopes the deaths of Abu Sayyaf fighters who went to Bohol island to try to sow terrorist activities there would teach Islamist militants a lesson as he expressed fears about the possibility of the Visayas becoming the next theater of battle between security forces and bandit groups.
In April, 10 Abu Sayyaf fighters went to the tourist island of Bohol allegedly to kidnap vacationers and to sow terrorism. They were met by a strong military response, however, eventually leading to the arrest or death of the Islamist militants.
Duterte said that he would suspend the privilege of habeas corpus in Visayas should the fighting on the Philippines second largest island spill into the region.
The chief executive said he was worried about the Visayas considering that it is just a short boat ride away from the shores of Mindanao.
The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard are already patrolling the waters between the Visayas and Mindanao.
“That’s why I mentioned in passing that if there is a transfer of venue from Mindanao to the Visayas and to make it easy for the Philippines to challenge the new engagements I will be forced to declare the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, not martial law,” he said.
The writ of habeas corpus means “to produce the body.” It is a court order for individuals or agencies to bring a detained person before the court and to explain a valid reason for that individual’s detention.
The 1987 Constitution requires that the writ’s suspension be done separately from the declaration of martial law. It states that the suspension of habeas corpus applies “only to persons judicially charged for rebellion or offenses inherent in, or directly connected with, invasion.”
'Visayas a porous region'
The president also cited the fact that Visayas was a porous region because it is composed of several small and large islands.
“And the only reason why I am worried about the Visayas is it’s just a very short expanse of the sea. And as a matter of fact if you leave by ship or boat via Cagayan, by morning time, you are in the Visayas. It’s a group of islands. It’s very porous, and you cannot control any Filipino for that matter from going anywhere and everywhere. That is the constitutional right of every Filipino in this country,” he said.
The president has previously said that he might declare martial law over the entire country.
“I have a serious problem in Mindanao, and the (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has taken, their footprints are everywhere. And there are many, many foreigners and Caucasian-looking. Allow me to focus the problem sa Mindanao, and maybe the spillover in the Visayas and in Luzon,” the president said last week. “If I think the ISIS has taken foothold also in Luzon, and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”
He said that with the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus suspended, it would be easy for security forces to arrest suspected Islamist group fighters.
“But yung habeas corpus lang, so that I can arrest you anytime without a warrant. That is just a precautionary measure. I don’t it will happen. I hope it will not happen. But if it does we must be ready,” Duterte said.
Last week, the president was forced to cut his landmark official visit in Moscow as the battle between security forces and Islamist fighters raged in the Islamic City of Marawi in the Philippines’ troubled south.
According to the military, the firefight broke out when soldiers tried to arrest an Abu Sayyaf subleader, Isnilon Hapilon, and several Maute Group leaders.
The group then occupied pockets of the city from which they have been fighting the military since Tuesday last week.
The clashes have so far killed 89 Islamist fighters, 21 soldiers and policemen and 19 civilians. They have also turned the once bustling city of 200,000 into a virtual ghost town as most of its inhabitants streamed into neighboring cities and towns.
The battle has devolved into street-to-street combat as the military tries to flush out the remaining fighters out of the city.