The Philippine government, already under fire for a poor human-rights record, is coming in for more criticism as it implements a new anti-terror law many fear could be used against political opponents.
Hundreds of people held a protest yesterday against the Human Security Act that allows detention of suspects without charge for up to three days and provides for up to 40 years in jail for anyone convicted of terrorism.
The law willl come into effect tomorrow.
Arroyo signed the anti-terror legislation into law in March, but postponed its implementation until two months after congressional elections on May 14 to assure the president's political opponents it would not be used against them.
While the legislation was languishing in Congress for 11 years, the Philippines was criticized by the US and other Western governments as the weak link in the global fight against terrorism.
The country is fighting Islamic militants in the south and communist rebels across the country.
Since 2000, more than 350 Filipinos have died in about 120 bombings blamed on Muslim militants, mostly in the south. The communist rebels do not target civilians but have been known to carry out land mine attacks against security forces.
Besides detention without charges and harsh jail sentences, the law allows security forces to investigate bank accounts of suspected terrorists or organizations used as financial conduits.
Electronic surveillance is also allowed but only after court approval is received.
"There's nothing to fear if you are not planning anything illegal," said Ricardo Blancaflor, defense undersecretary and the spokesman for the government's anti-terror task force.
He said there were enough safeguards to prevent security forces from abusing the law, add-ing some law enforcement agencies were complaining it was too restrictive and could work against them.
One safeguard allows anyone wrongfully detained to receive 500,000 pesos (US$10,800) compensation for each day in custody.
Nevertheless, the law is coming in for severe criticism.
About 500 left-wing activists marched in Manila yesterday and held a protest rally, demanding lawmakers repeal the act and stop its implementation.
"It's a bill that will trample on the rights of the people," said left-wing leader Carol Araullo. "It will be used by the government against its enemies, its political enemies. It is tantamount to undeclared martial law."
Senator Mar Roxas, a former ally of Arroyo, said: "The government already suffers from highly negative public perceptions in regard to its human rights record. To push the limits further would only breed more fear and anger among the people. Better to err on the side of human rights than to breed tyranny."
Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said the act has been watered down but could be revised later to make it a more potent weapon against terrorists.
"I think the counterterrorism law is very weak, but the government has to implement it," Gunaratna said. "It's a good starting point."
Philippine forces have dealt with terror threats for years but have been accused of conducting extra-judicial killings. If enforced properly, the new law will protect human rights by drawing a legal line that anti-terror units must not cross, he said.