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VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Ang Mamatay Nang Dahil Sa …? What court documents say about Rizal’s trial and execution

Two days before the nation welcomes another year, Filipinos will commemorate Jose Rizal’s execution on Dec. 30, which the late president Emilio Aguinaldo first declared a holiday on Dec. 20, 1898.

Since then, every Rizal Day, the nation remembers the grim morning in 1896 when the propagandist was executed by firing squad for crimes involving “rebellion.”

What prompted Rizal’s execution? Did his crimes warrant a death sentence? Here are three things you need to know:

1. What crimes was Rizal charged with?

On Dec. 26, 1896, Spain’s military court in the Philippines called the Ordinary Court Martial of the Post declared Rizal guilty of “founding illegal associations” and “promoting or inducing to (sic) the commission of rebellion,” the first crime “being a necessary means” to the commission of the other, according to late historian Horacio De La Costa in his 1961 book, The Trial of Rizal.

The prosecutors pinned Rizal’s guilt on his “admission” that he wrote La Liga Filipina’s statutes when he was in Hong Kong from 1891 until mid-1892. Rizal testified in his Nov. 20, 1896 deposition that it was only through the “urging” of Don José Basa that he wrote the statutes and by-laws of Liga Filipina, Dela Costa noted.

Thus, the prosecution argued that Rizal was the “organizer” of the illegal association. Judge Advocate General Nicolas De La Peña likewise held that Rizal was the “prime mover” of the rebellion and sentenced him to be “executed by firing squad.”

De La Peña, who was also the military court’s chief legal adviser at the time, affirmed Rizal’s sentence and endorsed his execution. Then governor-general Camilo G. De Polavieja set the date for Rizal’s death on Dec. 30, 1896, 7 a.m., at the Bagumbayan field, now known as Rizal Park.

2. Did these charges warrant his immediate execution?

The military court claimed that Rizal’s death sentence was “in conformity” with Article 189 and 12 other articles of Spain’s penal code. However, Article 189 stated that those guilty of founding illegal associations would face prision correccional, or imprisonment, according to the late historian Miguel Bernad in a 1998 journal article.

Should there be a pardon, the military court said, Rizal would have faced life imprisonment and surveillance, with absolute and perpetual deprivation of civil rights. This came with a fine of P100,000 that his heirs would have to pay.

3. What did Rizal say about the charges?

Rizal maintained his innocence to the very end. He insisted that La Liga Filipina was not a subversive organization. If it was, he argued, the Katipunan would not have been formed.

This was part of Rizal’s 12-point letter of defense, read to the military court before his sentencing on Dec. 26, 1896. The physician asserted:

“1. Concerning the rebellion. I have had nothing whatever to do with political affairs from 6 July 1892 to 1 June of the present year. On the latter date, upon being told by Don Pío Valenzuela that an uprising was being contemplated, I advised against it and tried to reason him out of it.

Source: The Trial of Rizal, Translated: Additions to My Defense (Dec. 26, 1896), 2015 edition


In the same letter, Rizal vehemently denied witness accounts that pointed to him as the “honorary president” of the Katipunan. He said:

“5. One of the witnesses claims that I was the chief (of Katipunan). What kind of chief is he who is left out of account in the planning of an enterprise and who is notified only that he might sneak away? What kind of chief is he whose followers say “yes” when he says “no”?

Source: The Trial of Rizal, page 108


Similarly, Rizal pointed out that he had many opportunities to escape imprisonment, especially during his exile in Dapitan. Instead, he said he “accepted [his] exile with resignation,” a fact which, he argued, could be proved by military governors, residents, and priests in Dapitan.

Rizal also pointed out that his exile gave him the opportunity to “do some writing.”

Just a day before his execution, Rizal signed the court’s sentence that sealed his untimely death. According to historian Wenceslao Retana, Rizal’s signature on the document showed he did so in a “very steady, clear, and beautiful hand, every stroke denoting the most complete self-possession.”

That afternoon, Rizal bid farewell to some members of his family who were allowed to enter his cell. He also wrote goodbye letters to his friends, including Fernando Blumentritt. Rizal wrote:

“My dear Brother,

When you receive this letter, I shall be dead by then.

Tomorrow at seven, I shall be shot; but I am innocent of the crime of rebellion.

I am going to die with a tranquil conscience.

Adieu, my best, my dearest friend, and never think ill of me! […]”

Source: University of Vienna, 211. Rizal, Fort Santiago, Manila, 29 December 1896, Accessed Dec. 17, 2021








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Sources

Official Gazette of the Philippines, AN ACT DECLARING JUNE 19 OF EVERY YEAR A SPECIAL NONWORKING HOLIDAY IN THE WHOLE PROVINCE OF LAGUNA IN HONOR OF THE BIRTH ANNIVERSARY OF OUR NATIONAL HERO, DR. JOSE P. RIZAL, TO BE KNOWN AS “ARAW NG KAPANGANAKAN NI DR. JOSE P. RIZAL”, Nov. 9, 2018

De la Costa, D. H. (2019). The Trial of Rizal (1st ed.) [E-book]. Ateneo de Manila University Press

Bernad, M. (1998). “The Trial of Rizal”, Accessed Dec. 15, 2021

University of Vienna, Who was Wenceslao Emilio Retana?, Dec. 15, 1998

ABS-CBN News, The last days of Jose Rizal, Dec. 29, 2016

University of Vienna, 211. Rizal, Fort Santiago, Manila, 29 December 1896, Accessed Dec. 17, 2021


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)