Boston — Benigno S. Aquino figures he's "a better human being" for his seven years and eight months in a Philippine prison, much of it in isolation. "It made me look inward," says the prominent Philippine opposition leader.
Mr. Aquino was among the first to be taken into custody when President Ferdinand E. Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. A highly popular and wealthy senator, he was widely considered the prime contender in the aborted presidential election of 1973.
At first, he said in an interview here, "I was wallowing in self-pity, crying like a baby. I had got to the top too early and too young." He felt there was no justice, perhaps even no God. He asked himself, "Why are all the crooks out there? Why should I be here?"
In the early period of his imprisonment, his only reading material was the Bible. He found particularly helpful the book of Job. He began translating the Bible from English into his native dialect.
"I knew Jesus in prison," he says.
He easily cites Bible passages that proved helpful, such as St. Paul noting, "For when I am weak, then am I strong" (II Cor. 12:10) or "O death, where is thy sting?" (I Cor. 15:55). Such verses, he said, gave him strength and courage when he was alone or worse. In 1977 he was charged, convicted, and condemned to death by a military court for subversion, murder, and illegal possession of firearms. The trial and sentence caused such an outcry that the government attempted to play down the case and never carried out the sentence.
"I realized what hunger meant, what real poverty meant, what humiliation meant," says Mr. Aquino, further recalling his "2,785 days" in prison. But he claims he feels no bitterness or rancor. "I found my faith," he says.
At the start of martial law, some 90,000 to 100,000 Filipinos were tossed into prison for some period, though not that many at one time, he estimates. He credits President Carter's emphasis on human rights with helping reduce the number detained by the Marcos government. By the end of 1976, there were perhaps 2,000 political prisoners, and today, he figures, about 200 remain -- "give or take 100."
He adds: "The sad part is, we don't have an actual count."
Another 300 or so opposition people are unaccounted for, having disappeared, Mr. Aquino says. Prominent leaders like him had the advantage of attention from the international press and such groups as Amnesty International or the International Commission of Jurists. "But if you didn't have that kind of protection, you could disappear in the woodwork," he charged.
"I am not saying this was a government policy," he says. In other words, he does not maintain that President Marcos ordered the killing of opposition figures. "But I do say that it happens. Some lesser officers may have got overenthusiastic and got out of hand."
(In July the International Labor Organization took the Philippines off its list of countries facing charges for violation of human rights in the social and economic fields. The ILO had maintained that the "New Society" of the Marcos government had destroyed freedom of association and collective bargaining.)
Later in his imprisonment Mr. Aquino was able to have copies of foreign publications and all the books he wished. He was also able to see his wife and family (four girls, one boy). His wife, Corazon, was of enormous help, Mr. Aquino says. 'Without her, I would have given up long ago."