Philippine president seeks powers over firms, supplies, funds to avert crisis

The Philippines was the first Southeast Asian country to adopt lockdown measures, but more are following suit as cases soar. (AFP)
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Updated 23 March 2020

Philippine president seeks powers over firms, supplies, funds to avert crisis

  • If approved, the granting of the powers would be one of the most aggressive steps to tackle coronavirus
  • President Rodrigo Duterte has a supermajority in both chambers, so the bill is expected to pass

MANILA: The Philippine Congress held a special session over the Internet on Monday to debate a push by the country’s strongman leader to adopt sweeping emergency powers, in a bid to avert chaos from a rapid spread of coronavirus.
A committee of the Philippines’ lower legislative body already passed a bill granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the coronavirus situation in the Philippines.
In a special session, the House Committee of the Whole passed House Bill No. 6616, which would declare a national emergency amid the rapid spike of COVID-19 cases in the country.
The bill is now being tackled in the House plenary.
With borders closed to foreigners and tens of millions of people on home quarantine, Duterte wants the power to — where necessary — control supplies and public utilities, order businesses to help government, and pull funds from state enterprises and departmental budgets to redirect into emergency health needs.
If approved, the granting of the powers would be one of the most aggressive steps to tackle coronavirus as governments worldwide roll out stricter measures, including across Southeast Asia, which saw a more than doubling of cases in the past week to nearly 3,700, from 166 a month ago.
The Philippines has confirmed 462 casess, but health officials acknowledge limited testing for the coronavirus means its already overstretched health system could be facing far more infections than the numbers indicate.
“It is a step we were reluctant to take, but the circumstances and the experience of nations worldwide convinced us that we have no other choice,” Duterte’s Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told a near-empty Congress, with most lawmakers streaming the session at home.
The Philippines was the first Southeast Asian country to adopt lockdown measures, but more are following suit as cases soar, with Vietnam and Malaysia deploying soldiers to help with quarantines or to enforce curbs on travel and gatherings.
Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has joined Thailand and Cambodia in shutting bars, cinemas and public entertainment venues.
A draft of Duterte’s bill seen by Reuters seeks a “unified national policy” that would, if required, allow the government to temporarily take control of private utilities, telecoms and transport operators or businesses in the public interest, and force hotels, venues and rental properties to accommodate medical workers or quarantine facilities.
It could also control roads, prices, supplies and distribution of power, fuel and goods like food, water, cleaning products, clothing and medical supplies, imported or made domestically.
It would also grant the treasury the ability to take back departmental funds to spend on critical or essential services.
Duterte has a supermajority in both chambers, so the bill is expected to pass, although the opposition is concerned about the scope of the powers and potential for abuse.
The government is playing down the extent of the powers that Duterte would have, wary of public unease over emergency decrees and draconian measures dating back to the 1970s, under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Medialdea said the measures would be rescinded when the virus was managed and many would be “standby powers” for if a crisis erupted and “our most critical institutions are nearing a total shutdown.”


Kabul begins freeing Taliban

Newly freed Taliban prisoners walk at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 13, 2020. Picture taken August 13, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 August 2020

Kabul begins freeing Taliban

  • Release of final 400 inmates was approved by traditional Afghan grand assembly

KABUL: After months of delay, Afghanistan’s government has started releasing the last 400 Taliban inmates in its custody, clearing the way for long-awaited peace talks, officials confirmed on Friday.

Eighty of the 400 were set free on Thursday and, according to the government, more will be freed in the coming days. The release was a condition to begin intra-Afghan negotiations to end 19 years of conflict in the war-torn country. The talks, already delayed twice, are expected to take place in Qatar once the release process is complete.
“The release was to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide cease-fire,” the Afghan National Security Council said in a statement accompanied by video footage showing former Taliban inmates calling on insurgent leaders and the government to engage in peace talks.
The prisoner release follows an agreement signed by the US and the Taliban in Qatar in February that stipulated the exchange of prisoners between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the militants, who have gained ground in recent years.
The process, involving 5,000 Taliban detainees held by Kabul and 1,000 security forces imprisoned by the militants, was slated to begin in early March and should have been followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Ghani, initially resistant to the idea of freeing the Taliban inmates, began to release them under US pressure. Some 4,600 Taliban inmates were freed over the few past months, but Ghani refused to free the remaining 400, arguing they were behind major deadly attacks and that setting them free was outside his authority.
Faced by mounting pressure, after Eid Al-Adha holidays two weeks ago, the president vowed to summon a traditional grand assembly, the Loya Jirga, to help him decide if the remaining Taliban inmates should be freed or not.

FASTFACT

Footage showing men in uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban members went viral on social media this week, raising concerns that violence between security forces and the militants may impede the peace process despite the prisoner release.

Last week, the assembly approved the release, which is now underway and expected to be followed by the peace talks, in accordance with the US-Taliban deal.
The process, however, coincides with a spike in violence in the country and mutual accusations of an increase in assaults by the Taliban and Afghan government forces.
On Thursday, the Defense Ministry said it was probing a video circulating on social media showing men in army uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban fighters.
The UN requested that the incident be investigated. It remains unclear when and where it took place.
The Taliban, in a statement, said the bodies of their fighters were mutilated in the Arghandab district of the Zabul province.
Concerns are rising that similar acts of violence will further delay the peace process.
“Let us hope that this video does not become part of revenge-taking between the two sides and affect the process of peace. It is really unfortunate,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal told Arab News.
“As the violence continues, we see more brutal and shocking tactics from the sides and examples of revenge-taking, and that is very worrying and impacts any trust in a peace process,” Shaharzad Akbar, the chief of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said in a Twitter post on Thursday.
“It is on the leadership of the two sides to have clear messages to their fighters to avoid war crimes and actions that further the instinct for revenge that will make the reconciliation that should come out of a peace process difficult,” she added.

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