By ELLEN TORDESILLAS and TESSA JAMANDRE
(First of two parts)
THE stockades at Camps Crame and Aguinaldo in Quezon City and the Marines headquarters in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig that once held scores of soldiers accused of rising up against the government are now empty except for three prisoners—a senator, the Armed Forces’ most bemedalled officer and a Marine captain who was a fugitive until a fortnight ago.
Their lives put on hold as their cases drag on before civilian and military courts, these three prisoners are stark reminders of a restive military that rebelled against its former commander in chief, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and represent government’s unfinished business with senior and junior military officers.
Each of the three stockades has a lone occupant.
Antonio Trillanes IV, a former Navy lieutenant senior grade and a civilian since his election to the Senate in 2007, remains in jail at the Phlippine National Police headquarters at Camp Crame, waiting for a Makati court to resolve coup d’etat charges filed against him and 21 other members of the “Magdalo” group. They were charged for laying siege on Makati’s Oakwood Hotel exactly seven years ago yesterday (July 27), on the eve of Arroyo’s third State of the Nation Address, to protest what they said were Malacanang-sanctioned irregularities in the military.
Over the years, nearly all the 300 soldiers who had joined the 19-hour siege at Oakwood had been freed after they apologized to or asked for pardon from Arroyo or pleaded guilty to lesser offenses before a military court.
Trillanes also awaits a military court action on his motion to dismiss the case of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman which is punishable with discharge from the military service.
Meanwhile, the trial of a rebellion case, also by a Makati court, against Trillanes, former Army Scout Ranger Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim and 11 Magdalo officers for leading the Nov. 29, 2007 standoff at the Manila Peninsula Hotel, during which they withdrew their support from Arroyo and asked her to step down from office, has yet to begin.
In lone detention too—but at the Marines headquarters—and awaiting the court’s decision on the Oakwood siege like Trillanes is Magdalo’s Marine Capt. Nicanor Faeldon. Faeldon took part in the Peninsula standoff but escaped. He surrendered to his superior on July 7, after nearly three years on the run and a week after Arroyo stepped down as president. He has yet to be arraigned before the Makati court and a military tribunal for his participation in the Peninsula incident.
At the Intelligence Service detention facility in Camp Aguinaldo languishes the Armed Forces’ most bemedalled officer: Marine Col. Ariel Querubin, under arrest since February 2006 on charges of mutiny for his supposed involvement in an alleged plot to withdraw support from Arroyo. He and other officers had protested alleged cheating in the 2004 elections, including the participation of the military, that led to Arroyo’s victory.
Querubin’s co-accused, including Lim, are now out of detention, after petitioning the Armed Forces chief of staff for provisional liberty. But Querubin, who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in the May elections, has refused to file a similar petition, insisting that any offer of provisional release should come from the AFP leadership.
President Benigno Aquino III has vowed to put closure to many issues that have hounded the past administration. Querubin is hoping that their cases would be among those that would be resolved soon.
“It’s just either there was mutiny or not. The military court has to decide once and for all,” Querubin said in an interview. “What’s a provisional release to the officers if they are not cleared? They can neither be assigned or lead nor be promoted with this case hanging on their shoulder. This record, unless cleared, can always pull them back.”
Court-martial proceedings against Querubin, Lim and their 26 co-accused will resume on Aug. 27.
The fate of Trillañes, Faeldon and 20 others also depends on how Makati Judge Oscar Pimentel would define coup d’etat. Pimentel is expected to decide the case within the year.
The prosecution rested its case in 2007. It had taken prosecutors four years to present 19 witnesses, including former AFP chiefs of staff Efren Abu and Delfin Bangit. The defense wound up its offer of evidence early this month, presenting five former chiefs of staff: Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, Angelo Reyes, Roy Cimatu, Narciso Abaya and Generoso Senga.
Although Aquino said he has no intentions of interfering with the judiciary, he has repeatedly said the charge of coup d’etat and Trillanes’ seven-year incarceration are a “travesty of justice.”
He has said the siege on Oakwood did not constitute the crime of “coup d’etat” defined in the Revised Penal Code as “a swift attack accompanied by violence, intimidation, threat, strategy or stealth, directed against duly constituted authorities of the Republic of the Philippines, or any military camp or installation, communications network, public utilities or other facilities needed for the exercise and continued possession of power, singly or simultaneously carried out anywhere in the Philippines by any person or persons, belonging to the military or police or holding any public office of employment with or without civilian support or participation for the purpose of seizing or diminishing state power.”
The Oakwood siege ended several hours before Arroyo delivered her SONA in 2003. No attack took place; no blood was shed.
“We were willing to die but we were not willing to kill,” said former Air Force 1Lt Francisco Ashley Acedillo, one of the accused and Magdalo spokesman, replacing Trillanes, who is now the group’s chairman.
If convicted, prison awaits Trillanes and his companions. He would forfeit his Senate seat after final judgment.
Trillanes and his co-accused could regain their right to stand for public office only if Aquino grants them absolute pardon. Sen. Gregorio Honasan has proposed amnesty for Trillanes’ group, an executive grant that requires congressional concurrence. Honasan himself was granted amnesty for his involvement in several coup attempts against the late president Corazon Aquino.
The only officer still in jail for the alleged Feb. 26, 2006 mutiny, Querubin received on July 19 an order placing him under the custody of Brig. Gen. Reynaldo Ordonez, head of the Philippine Defense Reforms Office.
But Querubin has refused to comply with the order, because the directive was supposedly issued “upon his request,” which he denies.
In a meeting with AFP Chief Gen. Ricardo David on Thursday, Querubin stressed he never petitioned for release. He said he turned down months earlier a similar offer of provisional liberty from Bangit, then chief of staff, who had asked him to file a request to the chief of staff.
Assured personally by David that it was his (the chief of staff’s) “initiative” to place him under Ordonez’s custody, Querubin said he relented and is now awaiting a written order clarifying the terms of his provisional liberty.
Lim, who ran for the Senate in the last elections, was released to the custody of Ordonez after he made such a request to Bangit. Nine of his Scout Rangers officers followed suit and were released from their detention in Tanay. They are under the custody of the Army at the Transient Officers Quarters at Fort Bonifacio.
Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda, whose relief as Marine commandant in February 2006 for his supposed participation in a destabilization plot sparked the protest among his officers and men, has also accepted Bangit’s overtures for temporary release to the custody of the Marines, as well as three colonels and the lone female officer in detention, Lt. Belinda Ferrer. Miranda retired while in detention.
Querubin said the last thing he wants under the Aquino administration is political intervention in their case. Politics, he said, was the very reason that landed him and fellow officers in jail in 2006 and was the same reason the four AFP chiefs of staffs appointed by Arroyo since then never resolved their mutiny case.
Unlike in civilian courts, the general court martial is convened—and dissolved—upon orders of the chief of staff. Senior military officers and a lawyer make up the panel of judges that recommends a decision to the chief of staff, who can overrule or uphold the decision. The chief of staff can also withdraw or drop charges against the accused by granting a recommendation of nolle prosequi (no prosecution) from prosecutors.
In the mutiny case against Querubin and his colleagues, prosecutors recommended to then AFP Chief Gen. Alexander Yano in October 2008 against pursuing the case against half of the accused for lack of evidence. But Yano chose not to act on the recommendation.
Defense counsel Vicente Verdadero said the Manual for Courts Martial puts no limit on the prosecution’s nolle prosequi recommendation. He said the acquittal last October of 12 of the 28 military officers originally accused in the mutiny case also weakens the case against Querubin and his co-accused. Gen. Victor Ibrado was chief of staff at the time.
“The earlier the resolution of the cases, the better for the Armed Forces,” said AFP Spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta. “We need to move forward. The AFP clearly wants to resolve this mutiny case as soon as possible.”
He denied allegations that the AFP was delaying the court-martial proceedings. He cited the petition of the defense, not the prosecution, seeking to postpone the hearings pending the filing of a motion for reconsideration to the tribunal’s March 2 decision denying the motion of the accused for a not guilty finding.
February ‘mutiny’ revisited
Gen. Generoso Senga was AFP chief when some 600 Marines in full combat gear, including Querubin, protested Miranda’s relief as their commandant in February 2006. Thousands of civilians, including the late Corazon Aquino and her son, now President and Commander in Chief Benigno Aquino III, also braved the emergency rule and showed up at the Marines headquarters in Fort Bonifacio to support the officers.
“Ang gusto lang naman namin ay isang malinis na halalan (All we wanted was clean and honest elections),” said the six-foot-tall Lt. Col. Achilles Segumallian who led the march of Marines. The officers had also demanded disclosure of the findings by Vice Admiral Mateo Mayuga on the 2004 poll cheating participated in by members of the military and caught in the wiretapped “Hello, Garci” conversations.
Miranda, eight Marine officers and 19 officers from the Army Scout Rangers led by Lim were subsequently charged with “conspiracy to attempt to create and begin a mutiny.”
Forty enlisted personnel from the Army First Scout Ranger Regiment jailed along with these officers were dishonorably discharged on Christmas day of 2007 by Yano, then Army chief, after being detained for more than a year. They never had a day in court.
When he succeeded Senga as chief of staff, Gen. Hermogenes Esperon reversed the recommendations of a pre-trial investigation team that recommended minor charges and not mutiny charges against the officers. He also ordered the creation of the military tribunal to try the officers through an unsigned pre-trial advice.
Esperon was among the four generals mentioned in the “Hello, Garci” tapes and was Miranda’s “mistah” at the Philippine Military Academy.
In the military, the pre-trial investigation report by practice is reviewed by the Judge Advocate General Office to determine if it is in order and conforms to form and procedure. The JAGO cannot reverse the recommendations, and the commander in chief or the convening authority is empowered to sustain or lower the recommendations, not reverse these to raise the offense as charged.
Upon their retirement as chiefs of staff, Senga and Yano were appointed ambassadors to Iran and Brunei by Arroyo and are among the 26 political ambassadors whose stints have been extended by Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo until Sept. 30. Esperon became Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and later chief of the Presidential Management Staff. He ran for a congressional seat in Pangasinan but lost. Ibrado retired from government service for good. Bangit, who headed Arroyo’s Presidential Security Group, opted for early retirement after Aquino’s election and was replaced by David who was handpicked by the new president. (To be continued)
The Feb. 26, 2006 mutiny case:
Special General Court Martial #2