Panel majority: Aquino killing 'inspired by abolute power'
Wednesday may have been one of the most dramatic days in modern Philippine history. Everything happened in the space of a few hours. First, the majority report of the Fact-Finding Board that investigated the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. recommended the indictment of 26 men for the ''premeditated murder'' of the opposition leader.
These included Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver; Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas, the police officer in overall command of Manila; and Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, former head of the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom).
Deep in the 450 pages of text are assertions which come very close to implicating the top echelons of government in the affair. As expected, these findings go beyond the report of the panel's chair-woman, which was issued Tuesday and did not implicate General Ver.
The four board members presented their report to the President, then to a chaotic public session. Two of them then tried to leave the country and were stopped at the airport. Around the same time, Senator Aquino's widow, Corazon, repeated her belief that President Ferdinand Marcos had ordered the killing of her husband. And shortly after that it was announced that General Ver and General Olivas had been granted temporary leaves of absence while the case was been tried.
''The conspiracy to assassinate Aquino,'' the majority report notes in its conclusion, ''is an act of tragic irresponsibility inspired by absolute power.'' Like Tuesday's dissenting report by the board chairwoman, Justice Corazon Agrava , the majority report dismisses the government assertion that Rolando Galman, a small-time gunman in the pay of the Communist Party, killed Aquino. The military version of the killing, Wednesday's report says, is ''entirely false.''
The report says that Aquino was systematically tracked from his home near Boston to Singapore, Taiwan, and then to Manila by Ver and the Intelligence Community. Government claims that it did not know on which plane Aquino returned were untrue, the report says.
The security operations at Manila airport, involving almost 1,200 military men, were little more than an elaborate masquerade. Officers and troopers from the specially trained Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams ''lied uniformly and concertedly'' about the murder.
Like the Agrava report, the majority report concludes that one of the soldiers who escorted Aquino from his plane shot the senator. The majority report, however, reduces the number of principal suspects to two: Constable First Class Rogelio Moreno or Sgt. Filomeno Miranda.
The two theories that in the board's view best explain the murder both point to the top levels of government. Both suggest that Aquino was a major threat to the survival of the Marcos regime.
One is that the killing was the work of ''individuals within the present power structure'' with either a political or economic stake in the regime. The report notes widespread reports at the time of Aquino's return that the President was ''stricken with a fatal illness.'' The fear that Aquino would be able to fill the power vacuum caused by the President's illness, the hypothesis suggests, might have sparked the assassination.
''Individuals within the present power structure, particularly those with aspirations for the highest position in the land, cannot be discounted from the conspiracy to assassinate Aquino,'' the report says.
The other thesis suggests simply that Aquino may have been killed by ''individuals to whom the President had dispensed high and powerful positions, and are therefore grateful and extremely loyal to the President.''
Aquino's widow, Cory, goes one step further. At a press conference Wednesday she repeated her belief that President Marcos ordered her husband's murder. But, she added, ''I do not have any concrete proof.'' No officer, ''no matter how high, would have planned the assassination without checking with the President.''
The full truth, Mrs. Aquino said, would be known only when Marcos leaves office. She called for increased pressure in the form of peaceful demonstrations , to force Mr. Marcos to resign. A large rally is scheduled for Thursday.
Mrs. Agrava's courtesy call on President Marcos Tuesday was reportedly quite a cordial affair. Wednesday's visit by the four board members was distinctly chilly. Unlike Mrs. Agrava, they had no closed-door talk with the President. Instead they were kept waiting for some time in a separate room. When the four presented their report to Marcos, he reportedly said two words in reply: ''Thank you.''
The atmosphere was completely different when the whole board appeared briefly at the cavernous auditorium of the Social Security System building, where the board had conducted its hearing. The hall was packed with members of the public and press. Mrs. Agrava, who throughout the hearing had gloried in the publicity and popularity, was booed. She has now become a pariah. The other board members and their counsels - generally less flamboyant than the chairwoman during the hearings - were cheered. They are on the way to becoming folk heroes.
Agrava, looking rather distraught at her treatment, said a few words, declared the hearing closed, and left. The other board members, who had usually filed obediently out after her at the end of each day's hearing, remained. A board attorney, Bienvenido Tan, read the conclusion of the majority report. A roar of applause greeted the recommendations that Ver and other senior officers be indicted.
Though the recommendations had long been expected, the actual announcement was still a shock. The letters that Ver and Olivas sent to the President Wednesday, requesting ''temporary leave'' for the duration of their prosecution, seem to reflect this shock.
The two letters have a similar form and a similar tone - a mixture of bewilderment, self-pity, and considerable anger.
''Like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky,'' Ver's letter says, the findings of the majority report ''have struck me down without any chance of defense.''
''The world has turned topsy-turvy,'' says the Olivas letter. Without warning , the letter says, he has been transformed from an investigator into a defendant.
Both letters draw similar conclusions from this turn of events. ''Somewhere along the line,'' the Olivas letter says, ''the board has been waylaid by the enemies of the state.'' Ver's letter suggests the board has been converted into ''a tool to destroy the protectors of the republic.''
Given the forces at the disposal of both men, these conclusions have a rather menacing air about them.
Ver's temporary replacement is the deputy chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos - like Ver a distant relative of the President.
The West Point-trained Ramos, however, enjoys a considerable reputation for integrity and professionalism. There is little love lost between the two officers.
But Ver's eclipse may be more apparent than real. In his letter to the President, Ver notes that General Ramos can continue the plans of the armed forces - presumably formulated by Ver loyalists - using ''the same personnel whom I have used during the period of my trial.'' If Ramos does indeed use the same personnel, their loyalty may lay more with Ver than the acting chief of staff.
In a statement issued after receiving the second report, President Marcos noted that the reports were ''shadowed by serious controversy and differences of opinion'' - a line that is likely to figure prominently in subsequent legal battles over the case.
The Aquino case is now destined to go through a complicated and protracted legal process. It has been referred to a civilian body - the tanod bayan, the Filipino equivalent of an ombudsman, but with the power to prosecute. The tanod bayan is described in a government handout as an independent constitutional body. Its ''intelligence arm'' is the National Intelligence and Security Authority (NISA) - long a preserve of Ver.
After preliminary investigation by the tanod bayan, the case will probably be turned over to the sandigan bayan, a special court which usually tries offenses by government officials.
Wednesday's incident at Manila airport, when two board members were stopped from leaving the country on vacation, was described by the government as a bureaucratic mixup. Officials at the airport said the two men had been stopped because they were government officials by virtue of their board membership. Government employees have to request permission before going abroad.
A source close to the board said, however, that the counsel for the military defendants had in fact requested that the men be stopped.
The incident was probably only the first shot in a long war of nerves.