MANILA, JUNE 5 -- The Supreme Court today threw out rebellion and murder charges against opposition Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and 22 other alleged participants in a coup attempt last December that nearly overthrew President Corazon Aquino's government.
The court said that under Philippine statutes, the charges that had been filed against the suspects technically did not exist. It said the government could file a new case but it had to be based on less-serious rebellion charges against the suspected coup plotters. The justices also said that the suspects could not be denied the right to post bail.
The court virtually implored the Congress to make rebellion a more serious criminal offense in the Philippines, where a wave of bombings and assassinations in the capital city during the last two weeks has forced the military to bring in 2,000 reinforcement troops from the provinces.
The court's 11-to-2 ruling appeared to deliver what one diplomat here called "an embarrassing slap in the face" to the Aquino government, which had hoped that the prosecutions would be seen as proof that it was getting tough with its political enemies after five coup attempts since Aquino came to power in 1976.
But the court also appears to have given the government important ammunition to persuade recalcitrant lawmakers that a crackdown is needed, one that may include restrictions on the country's newfound political freedoms.
The latest wave of violence rocking Manila since late May continued today when a retired army colonel was surrounded by six armed men and assassinated in a Manila suburb this morning as he was on his way to work.
Since the terrorism campaign began, a dozen soldiers, retired officers and bystanders have been killed; a Japanese aid worker has been kidnapped; grenades have been launched at several banks, a Sikh temple and a U.S. Embassy cultural center; several bombs have been defused around the city, and some office buildings have received bomb threats via facsimile machine. Last week, a senior military commander conceded: "It seems we now have a breakdown of law and order."
Military officials and diplomatic analysts have said Communist rebels are behind the surge in assassinations, while right-wing military mutineers are most likely behind the bombing wave.
In its ruling today, the court said that because the charges brought against Enrile and the other alleged coup-makers -- "rebellion complexed with murder" -- technically do not exist, the government could only refile charges of "simple rebellion," which carries a lighter penalty of up to 12 years' imprisonment and under which defendants may post bail.
Presidential Press Secretary Tomas Gomez said later in a radio interview that the government had enough evidence to file charges of rebellion against Enrile. "The quality of the evidence has not been diminished whatsoever," Gomez said. "The government will now file a case based on rebellion."
The week-long coup attempt, which left more than 100 people dead and was put down only after U.S. warplanes flew cover for Philippine ground troops, was launched by soldiers from some of the military's most elite units and represented the most serious attempt yet to overthrow Aquino.
Enrile, who has denied involvement in the coup attempt, served briefly as Aquino's defense minister and is now the sole opposition senator. Since leaving the cabinet, he has become one of Aquino's chief political foes, accusing her accusing her of incompetence.
The government had charged Enrile and the others -- some of whom are still at large -- with the more serious crime because prosecutors said they wanted those suspects in custody to stay behind bars pending their trials to prevent them from mounting further destabilization campaigns.
The court, however, noted that Aquino had essentially abolished the crime of "rebellion complexed with murder" by presidential decree shortly after she took power in the "people power" revolution that ousted president Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos, who ruled for two decades, had used that charge to harass his political opponents by accusing them of formenting Communist rebellion and denying them bail. Aquino pledged to do away with that and other laws then viewed as "oppressive" and "politically motivated."
The court virtually conceded that the current law on "simple rebellion" in this country is unusually lenient, particularly given the growing number of groups that have turned to terrorism to try to topple Aquino.
"Nothing so underscores this abberration as the rash of seemingly senseless killings, bombings, kidnappings and assorted mayhem so much in the news these days," the court said.
"It is enough to give anyone pause -- and the court is no exception -- that not even the crowded streets of our capital city seem safe from such unsettling violence that is disruptive of the public peace and stymies every effort at national economic recovery," the court ruling said. "There is an apparent need to structure the law on rebellion."
The court suggested that under the dictatorial Marcos, rebels were viewed as idealists fighting for a just cause. "It may be that in light of contemporary events, the act of rebellion has lost that quintessentially quixotic quality that justifies the relative leniency with which it is regarded and punished by law," the court said. "Present-day rebels are less impelled by love of country than by lust for power."