Doubts grow about ability of Aquino board to pinpoint killer

The Fact-Finding Board probing the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., the popular Filipino opposition leader, has ended eight months of hearings amid growing doubts that it will be able to pinpoint the assassin.

The five-person board, headed by retired Justice Corazon Agrava, said it will try to present its findings to the public before Aug. 21, the first anniversary of Mr. Aquino's assassination.

Mrs. Agrava said the board has asked the Aquino family for permission to exhume the body for further investigation. But it is doubtful that such permission would be given since Corazon Aquino, widow of the slain leader, declared last year that the Aquino family would have absolutely nothing to do with the board.

The last two weeks of the Agrava board's public hearings saw Filipinos becoming more skeptical of the board's independence and impartiality. People who attended hearings regularly cited the testimony July 2 of Imelda Marcos, the powerful wife of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Mrs. Marcos was last year quoted in local newspapers as saying, ''If Aquino comes home (from three years of self-exile in the US), he's a dead man.''

While on the witness stand, Mrs. Marcos sobbed when she read portions of a letter from Aquino. A regular gallery observer said the board suddenly became soft on her. ''They did not pursue difficult questions and even sang 'Happy Birthday,' '' he said. July 2 is Mrs. Marcos's birthday.

Earlier this year, the Agrava board won commendations from the public when it called several civilian witnesses who contradicted the government's version of the assassination. The official line is that Aquino was shot on the airport tarmac by a certain Rolando Galman, a lone gunman acting on behalf of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines.

The political assassination is the single biggest factor that led to the current economic crisis in the Philippines. Filipinos were outraged by the suspicious circumstances surrounding the murder and held the Marcos government directly responsible for the crime.

This outrage was manifested in unprecedented numbers turning up at antigovernment rallies late last year, and more recently, in protest votes during the parliamentary elections in May that helped opposition parties win a considerable number of seats in parliament.

The political turmoil frightened businessmen and bankers, triggering a massive capital flight and a standstill in the flow of foreign investments and loans into the country, all leading to the current chronic shortage in foreign exchange.

Marcos's government is now involved in a tortuous program of economic recovery being worked out with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the country's 350 commercial creditors. The government has been waiting 10 months for a $630 million US standby credit from the IMF that will pave the way for the rescheduling of some of the country's $25 billion foreign debt.

The IMF credit will also determine how much commercial creditors will give on fresh loans for bridge financing that would put the derailed economy back on track.

Nevertheless, despite the Agrava board's inconclusive sessions with 185 witnesses, they have cast serious doubt on the government version of the killing. Civilian witnesses have embarrassed the military, and even if the testimonies were to be discredited later, they have irretrievably tarnished the military's image.

On the other hand, President Marcos's own credibility has been placed under further suspicion.

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