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ASEAN governments must stop using ‘lawfare’ against critics, Southeast Asian MPs say

27/01/2023

ASEAN governments must stop using ‘lawfare’ against critics, Southeast Asian MPs say

MANILA – The Philippines, as well as other ASEAN member states, must immediately halt the use of judicial harassment and politically-motivated charges against critics and political opponents, a phenomenon known as ‘lawfare’, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today at a press conference held in Manila.

We call on Southeast Asian authorities to stop abusing the legal system to stifle dissent and urge ASEAN to reprimand member states that continue to use lawfare to attack political opposition. The Philippine government can take the first step by dropping all charges against Walden Bello and immediately releasing Senator Leila De Lima and any others that have been unjustly detained due to politically-motivated charges,” said Mercy Barends, Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.

The press conference, titled “Stop Lawfare! No to the Weaponization of the Law and State-sponsored Violence,” was organized by APHR and the Walden Bello Legal Defense Committee, in solidarity with Walden Bello, an APHR Board Member and former Member of Parliament in the Philippines. Bello is facing politically-motivated charges of cyber-libel brought by a former Davao City information officer who now works as chief of the Media and Public Relations Division of the Office of the Vice President, Sara Duterte.

There have been many other victims of lawfare in the Philippines, including Senator Leila de Lima, who was arrested in February 2017 on trumped-up drug charges, shortly after she had launched a Senate investigation into the extrajudicial killings committed under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. She has remained in detention ever since, still waiting for her trial, despite the fact that several key witnesses have recanted their testimonies.

Lawfare is very common in the Philippines, but is happening everywhere in Southeast Asia and beyond. Governments in the region are using ambiguous laws to prosecute political opponents, government critics, and activists. This weaponizing of the legal system is alarming and incredibly damaging to freedom of expression. It creates an atmosphere of fear that not only silences  those who are targeted by such “lawfare” but also makes anyone who may want to criticize those in power think twice,” said  Charles Santiago, APHR Co-chairperson and former Malaysian Member of Parliament.

In Myanmar and Cambodia, for example, laws on treason and terrorism have been weaponized to crush opposition. The most tragic example took place in July last year, with the execution of four prominent Myanmar activists on bogus terrorism charges by the Myanmar junta. Those were the first judicial executions in decades, and provide an extreme example of how the law can be perverted by authoritarian regimes to cement their power, APHR has denounced. In Cambodia, members of the opposition are sentenced to lengthy jail terms on fabricated charges simply for exercising their right to freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, defamation laws are among the most often used for lawfare in Thailand, where, contrary to many other countries, it might be regarded as a criminal offense, rather than just a civil offense. Sections 326–328 of the Thai Criminal Code establish several defamation offenses with sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 200,000 Thai Baht (approximately USD 6,400).

I think we, as parliamentarians, should do our utmost in our respective countries to repeal, or at least amend, these kinds of laws. Our democracies depend on it. But I also think that we cannot do it alone. We need to work together across borders, share experiences with parliamentarians from other countries and stand in solidarity with those who fall victim to them, because, ultimately, we are all on the same boat,” said Rangsiman Rome, Member of the Thai Parliament, and APHR member.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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