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Plan to Oust Foreign Islamic Terrorists Jolts the Philippines

A strong deja vu is sweeping over many Filipinos. Ten years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship, a proposed law to keep out foreign terrorists is being denounced by many as a return to that dark era.

Debate over the bill is so furious that its original intent has been lost. Many members of Congress and the press see the bill as a sinister prelude to some form of martial law possibly being imposed by President Fidel Ramos, a former general under the late Ferdinand Marcos.

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The measure would target foreign Islamic extremists who use the Philippines as their base to carry out terrorist activities. The most notorious has been Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistan-born Islamic radical who operated from the Philippines and is now in United States custody on charges of being the ringleader of the World Trade Center bombing.

President Ramos has pressed heavily for the bill's passage since the December arrest of 35 suspects holding Pakistani and Middle Eastern passports. The country has been on a terrorist alert ever since authorities discovered a plot to kill Pope John Paul II during his visit here last year. The principal suspect, Mr. Yousef, escaped, but an accomplice was extradited to the US.

What also irks the government is that foreign Islamic terrorists are known to have aided home-grown extremist groups in the Philippines, such as Abu Sayyaf.

Critics of the stringent measure against terrorism worry that it could be used to stifle political dissent within the country. The bill targets local insurgency groups as well as criminals who use violence.

During the 12 years of martial law imposed by Marcos, at least 60,000 people were arrested. Many were tortured and killed, while some remain missing. The media was muzzled, Congress abolished, and the judiciary controlled.

The two key men who turned against Marcos are now in power: Ramos was head of the Police Constabulary; Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos's defense minister and the chief implementor of martial law, is now a senator and author of one of the antiterrorism bills.

Mr. Enrile's image and credibility are mired in old suspicions. Critics also see the bill as a conspiracy to extend the presidency of Ramos, who was elected for only one six-year term as the Constitution stipulates, beyond 1998.

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The Enrile bill and three other similar bills call for arrests without warrants, wiretapping, and allowing authorities to peer into bank accounts. Many anti-Marcos political activists who suffered under martial law see the bill as an erosion of constitutionally guaranteed human rights. The provisions "produce a chilling effect on ... our democratic processes," comments Senate President Neptali Gonzales.

In an editorial, the Philippine Daily Inquirer comments: "The memory of the reign of terror during the Marcos dictatorship ... is too recent and too painful to be forgotten."

Many in Congress say they will block passage of the bill. But Enrile, defending his bill, called for a safeguard mechanism in the form of a committee that can check abuses in carrying out the law.

Ramos himself repeatedly has denied he wants to remain in power beyond 1998. Having played a key role in driving out a dictator as well blocking several coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino, he seems an unlikely supporter of a return to authoritarianism to many Filipinos.

Carolina Hernandez, an international relations strategist, rejects accusations that Ramos was "doing a Marcos." "The president has a serious appreciation of his place in history. He wants to preserve his role as a constitutionalist who helped restore democracy," she says.

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