As expected, members of Congress and the Reagan administration responded critically Monday to news of the acquittal and reinstatement of the Philippine Army chief of staff, Gen. Fabian C. Ver. General Ver was charged in the August 1983 assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. ``It's difficult to reconcile the exemplary, thorough work of the Agrava board . . . with the outcome of this trial,'' says State Department spokesman Charles Redman, referring to an independent commission investigating the Aquino murder. Last year the commission blamed Philippine Army personnel for the killing. Mr. Redman also said it was not clear how Ver's reinstatement by President Ferdinand Marcos ``squares with . . . Marcos's professed desire to init iate serious reform in the Philippines.''
``Ver's reinstatement can only reignite the concerns fired by the memories of Senator Aquino,'' says Rep. James Leach (R) of Iowa, a member of the Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Representative Leach says that unless the reinstatement is just a temporary, face-saving move by Marcos, it will ``serve as a reminder of the capriciousness of the Marcos regime and a lightning rod'' for Marcos's opposition.
Observers here say the Ver decision also raises questions regarding prospects for the Philippine presidential elections, scheduled for next Feb. 7. Together with the Ver trial, the conducting of elections by the Marcos government has been viewed in the Reagan administration and on Capitol Hill as the principal litmus test of Marcos's willingness to make the basic reforms necessary to dissipate mounting political opposition.
``If you can't have a fair trial, how can you have fair elections? Since Marcos controls both processes, they're inextricably linked,'' says Richard Kessler, a Philippines expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
General Ver, a cousin and close confidant of President Marcos, was charged along with 24 other military personnel and one civilian with conspiring to cover up the August 1983 assassination of Mr. Aquino.
Hopes for a fair trial dimmed when the key testimony of eight of the defendants, including Ver, was thrown out earlier by the Marcos-controlled Supreme Court.
``Once the Philippine Supreme Court threw out most of the evidence against General Ver, it was clear that the dice were loaded and that justice would not be done,'' says Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Alan Cranston (D) of California.
The door on those hopes was later slammed when a three-judge panel aquitted all 26 defendants on Sunday. In its ruling the panel said the evidence in the case pointed ``overwhelmingly'' to Rolando Galman as Aquino's assassin. Mr. Galman was a security worker at the airport who was killed at the scene by security personnel and who, according to the government, was a communist agent.
Analysts say the verdict in the Ver case is almost certain to heighten what has become one of the thorniest foreign policy dilemmas for the United States. For years, US officials have been searching for ways to prod reform in the Philippines, without prodding so hard that Marcos would be weakened to the benefit of the Philippines's fast-growing communist insurgency.
Last month, a senior Reagan official warned that failure to make major reforms could result in ``civil war on a massive scale'' in the Philippines within a few years. At risk, say US officials, would be two key US military installations in the Philippines, Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.
``The verdict will deepen the political alienation of the Philippine people, increase the prospects for instability, and threaten American interests in the region,'' says Heherson Alvarez, leader of one human rights organization linked to the Philippine democratic opposition.
The announcement is expected to reinforce congressional moves to cut levels of military aid to the Marcos regime. A $30 million cut in a $100 million administration request was made last summer. The administration may now be less likely to resist moves by Congress to cut the aid package even further.