Manila — A new inquiry into the killing of Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino opened Wednesday with some doubts raised about a key government witness. The five-member board conducting the investigation is led by Justice Corazon Agrava and includes three other lawyers and the chairman of the Philippines Chamber of Commerce. It replaced a commission headed by the chief justice, Enrique Fernando, which collapsed devoid of credibility, early last month.
The new fact-finding board questioned a Philippine Air Force colonel about his longstanding acquaintance with Rolando Galman, the man alleged by the government to be Aquino's assassin.
Lt. Col. Arturo Custodio said he had last met Galman in late July, about three weeks before the assassination, which took place at Manila's airport on Aug. 21.
Galman went to Custodio's house in Quezon City, just outside Manila, late in the evening and stayed for about an hour and a half. Custodio says his conversation with Galman was ''very bizarre.'' Galman seemed ''despondent and worried, as if he had something to run away from, but couldn't,'' the colonel said.
''I have something important to do,'' Custodio claims Galman told him. ''My group wants me to do something.'' Custodio says Galman later used the word samahan, meaning organization or association.
Sources interviewed by this writer suggest that Colonel Custodio was more closely involved with Galman than his testimony Wednesday suggests.
One source who has proven to be very well informed claims Galman was in fact employed as Custodio's bodyguard and driver for about a year.
Another source, close to the Galman family, alleges that shortly before Aquino's assassination, Galman confided to a relative that he had been given a contract to kill Aquino. The source says Galman named Custodio as the man who had arranged the contract, and said that the two men had come to know each other when Galman was detained in Camp Olivas - a point Custodio partially confirmed Wednesday.
But Wednesday's hearing did not touch on one key issue: Did Galman actually kill Aquino, or was he in turn betrayed by the actual assassins?
Custodio says he first met Galman in April 1979, when Galman described himself as a farmer from Neuva Ecija.
Their second meeting took place in the last quarter of 1982, when Galman's lawyers, coincidentally also friends of Custodio, approached Custodio to ask for help on matters of military procedure. Galman at that time was detained under a Presidential Commitment Order. Custodio professed ignorance about the reasons for Galman's detention.
After Galman's release, Custodio said the two men continued to meet. Galman visited Custodio's house ''four or five times.'' Despite Galman's unsavory background, Custodio said he could not turn the man away. He quoted the Bible to support his case.
Custodio, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, is a pilot with a long combat record in the southern Philippines. He is not related to Gen. Luther Custodio, the commander of the Aviation Security Command, the unit assigned to protect Aquino on his return.
But Colonel Custodio told the fact-finding board that General Custodio had been one of his flying instructors. Although currently stationed at the headquarters of the armed forces of the Philippines, the colonel says he has never been directly employed by Gen. Fabian Ver, chief of staff of the armed forces of the Philippines.
He also denied a report that appeared in Newsweek magazine five weeks ago that he had employed Galman.
Custodio first came to the Filipino public's notice on Nov. 3, when he was brought forward to formally identify Galman's body.
Wednesday Custodio made it clear that he had not done so voluntarily. He claimed that he had not recognized the photographs of Galman's corpse that appeared in the Manila press on Aug. 23. It was only later, when the formal identification was made, that he realized that the body was Galman. On Nov. 3, Custodio says he was ordered by Gen. Prospero Olivas, officer in charge of investigating the killing, to identify Galman's body.
Colonel Custodio, who appeared slightly tense during the questioning, is apparently not under any form of detention, unlike his namesake Gen. Luther Custodio, who is confined to barracks.
In addition to his reputation as a pilot, the colonel is also widely reputed to be a slightly sinister figure. This reputation was not diminished by the presence of two large armed men escorting him.
One, with a shaven head and the build of a retired linebacker, seemed loath to talk. His colleague was more responsive: He gave his name as ''Jun'' Rivera and said he owned a construction company. He said both he and his friend were civilians, unaffiliated with any military group, and were ''just friends'' of the colonel. He said they both carried permits issued by the chief of staff (General Ver) allowing them to carry weapons.
''Once a person has proven his integrity, he is allowed to carry a weapon,'' Mr. Rivera said.