The acquittal yesterday of the Philippine armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, and 25 others accused of involvement in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., came as no surprise to many Filipinos. Critics of the decision, handed down by a three-man prosecution panel appointed by the government ombudsman, say its main impact has been to further erode faith in the country's judicial system.
Leading human rights lawyer Joker Arroyo said the whole government -- not just the military -- had been on trial and called the verdict ``condemnable, . . . an indictment of the judicial system.''
But businessman Jaime Ongpin, a political activist and prominent critic of President Ferdinand Marcos, said the decision does not prevent offended parties from reopening the case in a new administration. The acquittal, he said, does not disprove General Ver's guilt.
``He was acquitted on a technicality because the evidence [against him] was thrown out [by the special court],'' Mr. Ongpin said.
Corazon Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader, is expected formally to announce her candidacy in next February's snap presidential election shortly. She said she would pursue the case further when President Marcos is no longer in office.
``Marcos remains my No. 1 suspect. I hold him responsible for the assassination of Ninoy [Aquino],'' said Mrs. Aquino.
According to Philippine law, no appeal is permitted except on claims of legal error. Under a law against double jeopardy, none of the accused may be tried again for any crime related to the assassination.
In a 90-page decision, the three justices stated that the prosecution failed to establish ``beyond reasonable doubt'' that the military plotted the Aquino assassination. Instead, Ver and his colleagues were faulted for inadequate security.
The judges affirmed a theory held by the Philippine military that Roland Galman, an alleged communist agent, killed the opposition leader. Mr. Galman was shot and killed by military police who had been escorting Aquino from his plane when the senator was assassinated at the Manila airport Aug. 21, 1983.
The judges discounted the testimony of the prosecution's chief witness, Rebecca Quijano, who said she saw a soldier shoot the opposition leader as he was leaving the plane.
Ver, a relative and close confidant of Marcos, told reporters after the verdict was handed down that he never doubted he was going to be acquitted.
``There was no evidence against me. It is no surprise,'' Ver said. The trial followed a 10-month investigation by a five-member civilian board of inquiry that charged Ver and 25 others with involvement in a conspiracy to murder Aquino.
Ver resumed office yesterday after receiving a hand-written note from the President. The note said that the general was reinstated ``for such period as may be decided upon by me and upon the advice of senior officers of the armed forces.''
Marcos said last week that he will reorganize the military after the Feb. 7 presidential elections. Ver is expected to stay in his post until that time.
Some military officers critical of the decision have adopted a wait-and-see stance regarding Ver's future role.
Officers interviewed Monday said they have no choice but quietly to put up with the special court's decision.
One colonel in active service said that most of the younger military officers are ``steeped in traditions of obedience and legalism,'' and those who cannot accept the decision have only one option -- to leave the military.
Leaders of the armed forces reform movement being supported by the United States are concerned about Ver's return. They have recently taken a high profile, appearing for the first time on Philippine television and giving a number of interviews apparently to insure their protection once Ver is back in office.
But the reform movement will continue, the officers said, and it will be difficult for Ver to fight their efforts.