Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time to set them free

In Aug. 2003, weeks before the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, I spent days at the New Bilibid Prisons interviewing the men who were convicted in the Aquino-Galman double murder case.

I had hoped then that after 20 years, one or several of the convicts would finally own up or make a revelation as to who ordered them to do what they did and lead us to the mastermind.

I got none of that for my three-part series. What I got was the men’s recollection of that fateful day in August, what they were doing when the shots rang out and what they did after the shots rang out. And of course, what the years behind bars had done to their personal lives and their families.

Except for Sgt. Pablo Martinez who, years earlier, had been trying to say something about his complicity but was largely and strangely ignored, the rest had nothing to say. Each one spoke for himself only—where he was, what he did and did not do.

Now, the prison doors are about to swing open so that these convicts could walk free. There is no loud uproar against their impending release. There are only regrets that no one else, other than Martinez, has given leads as to the mastermind.

Ninoy’s four escorts down the plane to the tarmac have always maintained that it was Galman who shot Ninoy. And those who peppered Galman with bullets insist they were just doing their job. ``Galman did it.’’ And not one of them as the court had ruled.

To refresh the memory, the 16 convicts in the Aquino-Galman murder case are:

Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) chief Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio (who died of cancer in prison); Capt. Romeo Bautista, Avsecom intelligence director; Sgt. Pablo Martinez, special operation squadron;

2Lt. Jesus Castro, leader of the boarding party composed of Sgt. Claro Lat, TSgt. Filomeno Miranda, Sgt. Arnulfo de Mesa, CIC Mario Lazaga, CIC Rogelio Moreno;

Sgt. Romeo Desolong leader of the SWAT Team Alpha that included Sgt. Ernesto Mateo, Sgt. Rolando de Guzman, AIC Cordova Estelo, Sgt. Ruben Aquino, Sgt. Arnulfo Artates and Sgt. Felizardo Taran.

Except for Custodio, Bautista and Martinez, the rest were members of
• the boarding party that led Aquino down the plane (one of whom, and not Rolando Galman, was supposed to have shot Aquino as he descended), and
• members of Team Alpha that was in the waiting SWAT van near the airplane. Members of Team Alpha gunned down Galman, loaded the fallen Aquino into the van and brought him to Fort Bonifacio.

Also, except for Custodio and Bautista, all came from the lowest ranks of the Armed Forces. The 20 other accused--high-ranking officials in the Marcos government and the military and some private individuals and John Does--walked free.

On Sept. 28, 1990, the Sandiganbayan handed down its decision finding the 16 men guilty and sentenced them on two counts to life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua. At that time the sentence was the maximum punishment under the 1987 Constitution until it was amended to bring back the death penalty.

The Sandiganbayan said then that the convicted men ``ought to be sentenced to the extreme penalty of death.’’

Twenty years after a crime was committed, new evidence cannot be used to charge anyone who may have been party to the crime--as long as the person was in the country during those 20 years. If the person is said to have spent time outside the country, the time spent abroad would not be included in the 20 years. The burden is on the accused to prove this was not true or that he was away for only so long.

Also, once a person has been charged within the 20-year period, the prescribed period no longer applies, a lawyer explained. The prescription period applies to suspects who, for fear of prosecution, went into hiding but stayed in the country for 20 years after the crime happened. After 20 years, unless they could be accurately pointed to as the John Does, they could come out of hiding and enjoy the sun. Or suspects, charged or uncharged, could stay on in another country where there is no danger of extradition and never come back--which is what some suspects in the Aquino-Galman case have done.

The guilty who are walking free should not rest easy. Other witnesses and participants in the crime, silent and fearing arrest all these 20 years, might just come out of the woodwork and make known the guilt of many.

The double murder case had been investigated by the Fernando Commission, then the Agrava Commission. The accused had been tried in the Sandiganbayan under Justice Manuel Pamaran and acquitted in 1985, during the time of deposed Pres. Ferdinand Marcos.

After Marcos was deposed and Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino became president, citizens petitioned the Supreme Court to reopen the case. The case was again tried in a Special Division of the Sandiganbayan which convicted the 16.

As of today, the convicts have served 18 years (counting from 1990) plus the years they were in detention while they were being tried the first time and the second time—a total of more than 21 years. Reclusion perpetua or a life sentence is only 30 years and a double sentence is served simultaneously. Because of their life sentence, the convicts cannot apply to be released on parole but they could apply for either pardon or commutation of sentence.

But questions remain. Who were the brains? The conspiracy was so well laid out it could only have been plotted at the top. It involved persons with massive power and resources. And yet the convicts in the case are mostly underlings, small fry, who could only have acted on obedience and played their part in an elaborate plot they knew little or nothing about.

It’s time to set them free.