A fact-finding board investigating the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino today said the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, and 24 other persons were "indictable for premeditated killing," and President Ferdinand Marcos relieved Ver temporarily of his command.
The president's office said Ver, a trusted confidant of Marcos, and the highest ranking military officer in the country, had submitted a letter requesting a "leave of absence" and that Marcos had granted the request.
The move followed the release of a report by the majority of the five-member board appointed by Marcos to investigate the murder of his political archrival.
Yesterday, Marcos ordered the prosecution of seven military men for last year's assassination of Aquino, based on a separate report issued by the chairman of the investigating board. That report, issued by Corazon Agrava, implicated the seven in a "criminal plot" to kill Aquino.
The report by the other four board members, however, states that the assassination involved a much broader military conspiracy. That report, the conclusions of which were read in the board's meeting hall today, cites 25 military men -- including armed forces chief of staff Ver and two other generals and one civilian.
Marcos told the four board members that he was transmitting their report, like the minority finding, to the Justice Ministry and to an ombudsman for "similar appropriate action."
The issuance of two separate reports follows a year-long investigation that included more than 20,000 pages of testimony from nearly 200 witnesses, including Ver and Marcos' wife, Imelda.
The reports reflect a heated debate over the role of Ver, 64, and the extent of the conspiracy that caused a split that the commission was unable to resolve.
Aquino was killed Aug. 21, 1983, at Manila International Airport seconds after his return from three years of self-imposed exile in the United States. His assassination triggered an eruption of long-festering political and economic crises here, and Marcos' handling of the commission's findings is expected to shape the tactics of the opposition seeking to end his 19-year rule.
The military has claimed that Aquino, 50, was killed by a professional gunman, Rolando Galman, 33, allegedly hired by Communist rebels. Galman was killed at the scene by military guards.
Opposition leader Salvador Laurel criticized Agrava's report and expressed doubt about the seriousness of the prosecution ordered by Marcos.
"Agrava rode roughshod over the other members of the board, the majority," Laurel charged. "I see the hand of Marcos there . . . evidently there was terrific pressure on this board, and one of them buckled."
The four board members concluded their majority report by finding Ver, Philippine Constabulary Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas, 54; Air Force Birg. Gen. Luther Custodio, 49, and 22 other officers and military men and one civilian as "indictable for the premeditated killing" of Aquino and Galman.
The reading of the majority report's conclusions was greeted by enthusiastic applause from hundreds of people packing the gallery. The crowd then broke into chants of "Marcos resign."
Among the others named were Col. Vicente Tigas, a member of Marcos' press relations staff at the Malacanang presidential palace, and Col. Arturo Custodio (no relation to the general), who picked up Galman from his home four days before the assassination.
The four board members said that they were "satisfied that evidence proves the complicity of Gen. Ver in this tragic affair in attempting, like Gen. Olivas, to cover up the crime . . . or the effects of the crime."
Ver has been chief of staff since July 1981 and has been in charge of Marcos' security since Marcos became president in 1965. He has three sons in the armed forces and his eldest, Col. Irwin Ver, is commander of the presidential guards.
As the basis for its findings on Ver, the majority report cites inconsistencies in his testimony before the board concerning statements that the military had not monitored Aquino's movements as he flew home last year via several Asian capitals.
The report said, for example, that Ver during testimony, produced a medical contingency plan that he said was part of security precautions in effect for Aquino's arrival from exile, although no such plan existed then.
The dissenting report by the board's chairman, former appeals court justice Agrava, issued independently of the other four board members, accused only Custodio and six soldiers under his command of plotting and carrying out the assassination.
Agrava's report specifically absolved Ver.
Nevertheless, according to Agrava, there was much that the board members did agree upon. Most important, they rejected the military's contention -- endorsed repeatedly by Marcos -- that a professional gunman, Galman, killed Aquino on behalf of Communist rebels. Instead, they agreed, the killer was one of the soldiers who escorted Aquino from his plane and took him down a service stairway as part of an assassination conspiracy.
"The board was unanimous in the main body of its conclusions," Agrava said after delivering a copy of her report to Marcos. "However, we reached a point where we differed on a certain point." Later, she described this as a "little difference . . . as to how far, how high the level of liability should be."
After accepting Agrava's 121-page report, Marcos ordered the Justice Ministry to initiate a complex legal process in which the seven military men would be brought to an ombudsman, or special prosecutor, for "immediate trial" by a civilian court with special jurisdiction over crimes "committed by public officials in relation to their duties." The court has usually been used to try corruption cases involving government employes.
Marcos also said that to expedite the case, he was authorizing the entire fact-finding board and its legal panel to help the ombudsman prosecute those responsible for Aquino's death.
Ironically, Western diplomats have noted that turning the prosecution of the conspirators over the civilian legal system could bring the case to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Enrique Fernando was forced to resign as the original head of the commission for allegedly prejudging the case in favor of the military version.
Before granting Ver leave of absence, Marcos ordered Ver to confine the seven military men cited in the minority report, to quarters and suspend them from military duties.
It was not immediately clear whether Marcos issued any orders concerning the men cited in the majority report.
In a lengthy television address to the nation a few hours after receiving Agrava's report, Marcos said, "I have chosen under my discretionary powers to refer this case to our civil courts, to keep all proceedings above any doubt whatsoever." He specifically ruled out court-martial for any of the military men named in Agrava's report.
"To the sympathizers of the late Sen. Aquino and to all who in this country and abroad have clamored for a just resolution of this case, let me say now: let us allow the law to take its course," Marcos told the nation. "Let us put an end to the campaign of intimidation and pressure that during the last year has so heightened tensions, endangered so many lives and besmirched the very reputation of our republic. If truth and justice are what we really seek, then remedy and redress lie in the path of the law."
Addressing those "held responsible for the crime," Marcos added that "indictment in no way constitutes summary judgment of your guilt."
Marcos also asked members of the armed forces "who may be dismayed by this turn of events and who believe that the board yielded to popular pressure and not to the force of evidence, to now put their faith in the wisdom of the judicial process."
In recent weeks, Marcos has sought to disassociate himself from the original military claim that Aquino was shot by hired gun Galman. But despite those public efforts, Marcos and officials at the presidential palace have long taken a personal interest in it.
According to informed government sources, Marcos personally coached his wife, Imelda, before she testified at a board hearing in July, and repeatedly urged her to say as little as possible while sticking to the line that she had twice tried to save Aquino's life.
A separate statement issued by Custodio, but distributed by the presidential palace press office, denied military involvement in Aquino's murder.
"God knows my men and I are without guilt in this crime, and there is factual evidence to back us up," Custodio said. "But I'm glad we shall be appearing before a civil court. This will enable us to prove our innocence beyond any doubt."
Custodio added, "My only regret is that the accusations against us have also stained the reputation of the armed forces. . . ."
Custodio was the commander of the Aviation Security Command at the time of the Aquino assassination. According to military sources, he was also a former pilot for and close aide of Imelda Marcos. Before his 1982 appointment to head the aviation security command, Custodio was a colonel in the elite presidential security command.
The report issued by Agrava made no mention of any involvement by President or Mrs. Marcos in the plot against Aquino.
According to Agrava's report, "Gen. Luther Custodio is included as a plotter because the criminal plot could not have been planned and implemented without his intervention." Agrava identified the other six plotters as soldiers who were on the service stairway when Aquino was being escorted down from his plane. The soldiers named were: Sgts. Claro Lat, Arnulfo de Mesa, Filomeno Miranda and Armando de la Cruz and Constables First Class Rogelio Moreno and Mario Lazaga.
In her report, Agrava accused Custodio of disobeying an order from Ver on Aug. 21 to arrest Aquino upon his arrival and turn him over to the military security command for detention.
"Gen. Ver was not a plotter," Agrava's report said. It also dismissed the idea that "Ver should be counted as one of the plotters on the principle of command responsibility."