Philippine assassination trial draws new testimony - and new threats

Two years after a Philippine panel of judges acquitted 26 military men of assassinating opposition leader Benigno Aquino, current testimony in a Manila courtroom threatens to overturn that decision. On Wednesday, the second day of defense grilling, prosecution witness Jessie Barcelona held to his testimony. He said he saw a soldier shoot Mr. Aquino, husband of current Philippine President Corazon Aquino, in the back of the head August 21, 1983.

Mr. Barcelona's story is the first direct testimony found by the special prosecutor implicating members of the armed forces in what is alleged to be a military conspiracy to assassinate the former senator upon his return from three years of self-exile in the United States.

That it took this long to emerge is in itself testimony of the genuine fear experienced by those who witnessed any part of the incident.

After he witnessed the shooting, Barcelona, a Philippine Airlines driver, hid in his office. Several other possible witnesses were killed or disappeared shortly after. These included Rolando Galman, killed seconds after Aquino and tagged by the military as paid by communists to assassinate the late senator; Galman's step-daughter; his girlfriend and her sister; and several airport employees.

In June 1985, Barcelona wrote a friend in the military that his conscience would not allow him to rest. The officer told him to remain silent because, Barcelona said, ``nobody could guarantee my protection.''

The special court assigned under ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos to hear the case exonerated Armed Forces chief of staff Fabian Ver and 25 other defendants. After the Feb. 1986 revolution that overthrew Mr. Marcos and General Ver, however, special prosecutor Raul Gonzales worked to reopen the case. He argued that with the change in government, witnesses who had been reluctant to testify could now be persuaded to come forth.

The absence of Marcos and Ver, however, has not eradicted the threats on witnesses and investigators. Yesterday, Barcelona's father said his son had been warned to go easy on his testimony. Mr. Gonzales said that while Barcelona was testifying Monday, a grenade was found in the prosecutor's office with a warning to ``stop this foolish nonsense.''

Jose Ferrer, assistant special prosecutor, targeted the ``strong camaraderie'' and protective network within the military as the probable source of the harassment of witnesses.

The testimony, he said, was a ``crucial breakthrough,'' and has shaken the accused. ``Some of them may not want to be left all alone to face the music,'' he said, hinting that there may be one or two who may turn state witness.

Barcelona also said that Col. Rolando Abadilla, an intelligence officer under detention for his role in several 1987 coup attempts, was at the airport chatting with Galman just as he was shot. Colonel Abadilla is running for office in this month's local elections. On Wednesday, he denied involvement in the murder.

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