Ver trial opens in Manila -- but critics are skeptical about court's credibility

What is considered the Philippines' most important trial ever opened last Friday with the arraignment of 26 men -- including Gen. Fabian Ver, the armed forces chief of staff and President Marcos' closest aide -- for the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. Although in appearance a murder case, the trial is really about power.

Opponents of the regime argue that General Ver never acted without Marcos's knowledge. They hope that a guilty verdict will destroy what remains of the government's credibility. Ver's rivals within the military, meanwhile, hope that the trial will end his supremacy over the armed forces. And Ver hopes that an acquittal will allow him to resume his office and his powerful role in the Philippines.

Ver is probably more confident than his various opponents. He and the others are being tried by the Sandiganbayan, a special court created to try government officials accused of corruption. Earlier efforts by the opposition to have Ver tried by an independent ``people's court'' failed.

Similar doubts were expressed about the Agrava Fact-Finding Board established after Aquino's assassination in August, 1983. These doubts proved ill-founded. But several incidents shortly before the arraignment seem to have deepened the present skepticism.

Earlier last week the presiding judge of the Sandiganbayan, Manuel Pamaran, had placed the accused military men -- including two other generals, Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas, commander of the Manila constabulatory, and Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, former head of the Aviation Security Command -- under the custody of their commanding officers, reversing an earlier decision to commit them to one of Manila's grim civilian jails.

One of the reasons given for this decision was that the civilian prisons were overcrowded. This did not, however, prevent the authorities from imprisoning striking bus (or ``jeepney'') drivers and their supporters last week. These included one of the country's best known film directors, Lino Brocka, and stage and television director, Behn Cervantes.

The two men and twelve others have been served with Preventive Detention Actions, orders that allow the government to hold suspects without charge for renewable periods of one year at a time.

Brocka and Cervantes are accused of leading an illegal assembly -- a capital offense under a 1982 presidential decree. Bail, therefore, has been refused.

Ver and his colleagues, on the other hand, were able to post bail following their indictment Jan. 23. All 26 were originally accused of conspiracy to murder Aquino, but the team of prosecutors reviewing the charges decided to indict Ver, Olivas and six other soldiers only as accessories to the murder.

In a sarcastic comment on the purported shortage of prison cells, one opposition group -- the August Twenty-One Movement (ATOM), headed by Agapito (``Butz'') Aquino, the brother of the murdered politician, announced last Thursday an appeal for funds and materials to build a ``people's prison'' for the accused men. The prison would have 28 cells, Aquino said: 26 for the accused men and two for ``Mr. and Mrs. John Doe'' -- a thinly veiled reference to Mr. and Mrs. Marcos.

In a speech made a few hours after the arraignment, Jaime Cardinal Sin, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, referred to the ``undercurrent of pessimism'' he noted whenever he spoke to people about the trial. The Cardinal called on Filipinos to exert the sort of moral pressure on the Sandiganbayan that they had used on the Fact-Finding Board.

The general tone of the Cardinal's speech, however, was grim and at the end he made some extemporaneous additions to the printed text. ``This country is so beautiful,'' he told his audience, ``let us save it.''

Sources close to the Cardinal say that the speech could partly be interpreted as a warning of a possible military coup by Ver's supporters. The Cardinal's concern on this score probably reflects that of some elements of the armed forces themselves -- notably Gen. Fidel Ramos, the acting chief of staff. The Cardinal and Gen. Ramos are considered close.

Other signs, however, suggest that Ver is hoping for vindication and reinstatement through legal means. He is believed to have pressed for a trial on the grounds that acquittal now will make him immune to further prosecution later. And, on arraignment day, when the presiding judge suggested that the court take Friday afternoons off, the General's counsel argued successfully against the idea. Even so, the trial is expected to last at least three months.

The General's temporary removal from office has galvanized, rather than demoralized, his staff. His aides are trying to improve his image, and are sounding out observers in Manila to ask what the reaction would be to Ver's return to office.

Ver's supporters say that the general wants to resume his old office, but may not remain in it long.

``The old man is tired,'' one of them said. ``He needs a rest.'' This seems to be the solution expected -- or at least hoped for -- by the United States.

Even a brief return would probably allow him to influence the appointment of a sympathetic successor: Like Ver, acting Chief of Staff Gen. Ramos' military service has been extended long past retirement age.

But if Ver retired, government and military sources say, he would retain his continued access to, and influence with, President Marcos.

An acquittal would not be without its difficulties for the government. Rein-statement of the general, even for a short time, could produce a sharp backlash from domestic and foreign opinion. Leonardo Perez, Minister for Political Affairs and one of the President's closest advisers, analyzed the pros and cons with clinical objectivity: ``The President has several options,'' Perez said. ``If General Ver is convicted there's no discussion about retirement -- he has to go. If he's acquitted, the President has to face the problem of whether to retire him or put him back.''

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