Filipino general likely to be acquitted. `Tactical blunder' in Aquino trial will clear Ver, defense lawyer says

After six months of hearings, the drama surrounding the assassination trial of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. -- once called the Philippines' trial of the century -- has subsided into public apathy and cynicism. But the drama may soon reemerge: the counsel for the highest-ranking defendant, Gen. Fabian Ver, is confident that his client will soon be acquitted. This could have widespread political repercussions both in the Philippines and in the United States.

Reaction from the US Congress could be swift and angry. The Senate passed a resolution in May that future aid to the Philippines would depend on a number of factors, including ``the full, fair, and open prosecution'' of those accused of the Aquino murder.

A Ver acquittal here could add to the country's growing political instability by reinforcing the perception that President Ferdinand Marcos played a role in the trial. If General Ver regains his position as armed forces chief of staff it could give further impetus to a growing military reform movement.

The trial up to this point seems to include more than its share of intriguing developments.

Senator Aquino was shot at Manila International Airport in August 1983, immediately after leaving the airplane on which he was returning to the Philippines after three years' exile in the US.

Twenty-six men, all but one in the military, are accused of conspiring to murder the former opposition leader, or of being accessories in the murder.

The list of accessories is headed by two of the country's most senior generals: Ver, who besides being chief of staff, is also the country's top intelligence officer and a close friend and relative of President Marcos; and Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas, head of the Philippine Constabulary's Metropolitan Command.

The most senior of the alleged conspirators is Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, former head of the Aviation Security Command, the outfit officially assigned to protect Aquino on his return, but which allegedly played a major role in planning and executing the assassination.

Antonio Coronel, Ver's defense counsel, says that his client may be acquitted as early as the end of August. The prosecution, he says, made a ``tactical blunder'' in charging Ver only as an accessory.

The fact-finding board that investigated the assassination produced evidence which seemed to show that Ver was monitoring Aquino's movements as he returned home from the United States. Ver denies this. In his testimony to the board, Ver stoutly maintained the official version of the killing -- that Aquino was shot by Rolando Galman, a small-time gangster who the government says was hired for the job by Communist Party of the Philippines. According to the government's version, Galman was then shot by se curity forces at the airport immediately after Aquino was killed.

But this evidence, Mr. Coronel says, is ``irrelevant'' to Ver's case. As an alleged accessory, he says, Ver ``only has to account for his actions subsequent to the killing -- not before. Foreknowledge [of the assassination plans] or awareness of Aquino's movements,'' Coronel says, ``are not material'' to Ver's case. But if Ver had been indicted as a principal in the murder, I would have encountered some difficulties.''

He says some evidence which has surfaced in the case could have been used against Ver if he had been tried as a principal in the murder.

As things stand, however, Coronel says he does not count the Ver case as being one of his most difficult.

Ver's hopes of an acquittal were boosted in June when the court ruled that the testimony of Ver and General Olivas before the fact-finding board was inadmissible under rules against self-incrimination.

The prosecution is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, whose ruling is crucial. Coronel says that if the exclusion of evidence is upheld, he will request the immediate dismissal of charges against Ver.

It is in this light that Marcos's choice of a new Supreme Court chief justice assumes considerable significance.

The outgoing chief justice, Enrique Fernando, has long been close to the President and is thought to reflect faithfully Marcos's viewpoint on legal matters. The next in line, Claudio Teehankee, has, on the other hand, often taken an independent line. Ignoring precedent, Marcos bypassed Justice Teehankee to appoint justice Felix Makasiar -- generally regarded as equaling Mr. Fernando in pliability -- as the new chief justice.

The President is believed to take a close interest in the trial. Marcos is said to have discussed the case with defense counsel on a number of occasions, both by phone and in person. Attorney Coronel denies this. One senior counsel on the former fact-finding board says he thinks that the decision to exclude the Ver testimony was in fact taken at the President's urging.

The prospects of the other defendants are less promising. Sources close to the prosecution say that a second alleged eyewitness to the 1983 murder may soon testify. The testimony could further damage the defense of the officers and men charged with plotting the assassination of Aquino.

Olivas, who has been conducting his own defense, has cited portions of his own fact-finding board testimony in the present trial -- thereby effectively putting it back on the record. Asked about this, attorney Coronel quoted an old legal maxim: ``A lawyer who defends himself is represented by a fool.''

And asked about the Aviation Security Command defendants, one defense lawyer in the case commented simply, ``I would not want to defend any of them.''

The testimony of one alleged eye-witness, Rebecca Quijano, a passenger on Aquino's plane, was a blow to the defense. ``The case was strong before Quijano,'' said the chief prosecutor, Manuel Herrera, ``and it's even stronger now.''

Miss Quijano testified that from her plane window she saw one of Aquino's escorts, a Metropolitan Command trooper, shoot him. The defense tried to discredit the testimony on the grounds of Quijano's past criminal record.

The testimony helped make up for the disappearance of other witnesses. Some have changed their testimony -- under duress, former board counsels think. Others have simply faded from sight.

Speaking of two key witnesses who are untraceable, prosecutor Herrera says, ``Maybe they're under pressure not to come out, or maybe they're plain afraid.''

A source close to the prosecution feels that ``with one or two exceptions'' the defendants will be convicted.

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