An official report blaming military men for the assassination last year of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. has exacerbated strains in the Philippine armed forces, according to Philippine military and p
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The temporary replacement of several senior officers implicated in the assassination -- including the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas and Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio -- has gone ahead relatively smoothly, with reaffirmations of military commitment to civilian authority and the judicial process.
At the same time, opponents of Ver have begun to acknowledge that a murder charge, on the basis of the case made against the general by four members of the investigating commission, might not stand up in court.
The overall report and its aftermath have stirred intense public debate on the issue of individual loyalties within the armed forces and raised concerns about what one columnist here has called potentially unsettling military "factionalism."
In recent days, a "manifesto" pledging "unwavering loyalty and support" for Ver has been published in the names of 68 generals and flag officers, while a statement praising the Aquino assassination report has been released by 65 retired officers.
The strains in the military have emerged as Ver, 64, the highest ranking soldier and a close confidant of President Ferdinand Marcos, prepares to defend himself.
The proceedings are shaping up as the most portentous murder case in the Philippines since Marcos himself was convicted as a young man of murdering a political opponent who had defeated his father in a legislative election in 1935.
Marcos, then captain of the University of the Philippines rifle team and a national target-shooting champion, was accused on circumstantial evidence in the killing of Julio Nalunsadan with a single shot in the back from a .22-caliber rifle while Nalunsadan was at home brushing his teeth, according to an authorized biography of Marcos by Hartzell Spence.
Marcos later won acquittal on appeal when, as a 23-year-old law student, he argued his case before the supreme court.
In a sense, according to political opponents of Marcos' 19-year-old government, it is really Marcos who will be on trial again, if and when Ver's case goes to court.
So staunchly loyal is the general to the president and so close have they been since their youth, that an accusation against Ver inevitably reflects on Marcos. Moreover, Philippine and foreign observers who have studied Marcos over the years question whether the general could act independently of his mentor on crucial matters.
"Considering the rank of the three generals," said opposition leader Lorenzo Tanada, 86, recently, "that's practically the president himself" who stands accused.
Last week, Marcos ordered the investigation and "immediate trial" of all those accused by the fact-finding board he appointed to investigate the murder of ex-senator Aquino, his political archrival who had just arrived at the Manila international airport from three years of U.S. self-exile.
Four of the board's members issued a report last week naming 25 military men -- including Ver and the two other generals -- and one civilian as "indictable" for the premeditated murder of Aquino and Rolando Galman, a professional gunman set up by the conspirators to take the blame for the assassination. The board's chairman issued a separate, dissenting report accusing only seven of the 25 military men and specifically absolving Ver.
But since the long-awaited findings were released, even opposition lawyers have conceded that the case presented in the majority report against Ver may be too weak to prove a charge of premeditated murder.
"I admit it may not be the ideal case," said one leading anti-Marcos lawyer, Rene Saguisag. "But we are trying to look at this in the sense of poetic justice."
Although the majority report lists Ver among those "indictable" for murder, lawyers pointed out, it does not recommend specific charges against any individual, does not actually accuse Ver of ordering the assassination and leaves the way open for a lesser charge of participation in a cover-up.
In a statement published today, Ver's lawyer noted that the majority report states that complicity lay in "attempting . . . to cover up the crime or hide the corpus or effects of the crime."
Lawyer Antonio Coronel said Ver was formally waiving his right to present evidence during a preliminary investigation before his case goes to trial in a civilian court, but that he was insisting on his right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him.
In accusing Ver, the majority report listed 21 instances in which he allegedly lied or misled the fact-finding board.
Often seemingly repetitive, these points include charges that Ver lied about military monitoring of Aquino's movements before his return to Manila, issued instructions on military planning for Aquino's arrival that made no sense and failed to give specific orders to ensure that any assassin would be captured alive.
In her dissenting report concluding categorically that "Gen. Ver was not a plotter," the board's chairwoman, former appeals court justice Corazon Agrava, 69, argued that "the record can be searched very carefully, and it will yield nothing which can show participation of Gen. Ver in the plot to assassinate senator Aquino."
The report conceded that "parts of his testimony can always be challenged as untrue." However, it added, "21, or even more, misstatements attributed to Gen. Ver cannot make him a plotter unless those misstatements are directly connected with the assassination plot."
Agrava's report accused a subordinate, Brig. Gen. Custodio, head of the Aviation Security Command, of plotting the assassination in direct disobedience of Ver's order to arrest and secure Aquino on arrival at the airport.
Marcos openly has defended Ver against the majority report's accusation and criticized its findings. The defense was seconded Sunday by the manifesto purportedly signed by 68 generals and flag officers.
"We are morally convinced that he Ver is innocent of the dastardly crime being attributed to him," the manifesto said. It said Ver's long years of service "fighting enemies of the state" and his sense of justice "belie the accusations."
"Unfazed by these tragic developments, we affirm our total and unqualified support to Gen. Ver in his determined quest for truth and justice," the manifesto said.
Among the signatories listed were the commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and presidential security command. Absent from the list were the head of the Philippine Constabulary, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, and 16 other generals, including members of his staff and key supporters.
Ramos, 56, was appointed by Marcos to replace Ver temporarily as armed forces chief of staff when Ver was named in the Aquino case. The two generals, both distant cousins of Marcos from his home region in the northern Philippines, have long been rivals and have vied intensely for the chief-of-staff job, according to military sources.
After the manifesto was published as a newspaper advertisement, Ramos said that although he supported Ver, his first loyalty was to the constitution.
Opposition politicians and lawyers' groups immediately criticized the manifesto on the ground that the military should avoid a "personality cult" of loyalty to one person as well as interference in the Aquino case.
Opposition legislator Luis Villafuerte said the manifesto showed "insensibility to due process" and could be interpreted as "interference by the military in what should otherwise be left to civilian courts."
A retired general, Luis Villa-Real, said many military men were "alarmed" by the manifesto, which he said showed a "dangerous" trend for the armed forces in promoting fidelity to one's superior over a larger loyalty to "the constitution, the flag and the traditions of the service."
More criticism of the manifesto came after Brig. Gen. Ramon Farolan, the acting commissioner of customs, wrote a letter to the newspaper the next day denying that he had signed the statement. Military sources said the signatures were apparently appended to the manifesto from other documents and included those of generals not known to have been in Manila when it was signed. But no other generals came forward to disavow the manifesto.
A separate statement issued today by 65 retired officers, including two former chiefs of staff and a vice chief of staff, expressed gratitude to the Aquino assassination fact-finding board for coming out with its findings and for "not indicting the entire military establishment." Both of the board's reports had drawn a distinction between the conspirators and the military as an institution.
The veterans' statement added, however, that the entire military "still remains with the stigma of this crime" and called for a "speedy and just trial" to remove it. It also appealed to "comrades" in the military to come forward and "help bring out the truth" about the assassination.