ustice Secretary Raul Gonzalez issued the release order for the convicts, all formerly with the now defunct Aviation Security Command (Avsecom).
They were identified as ex-Capt. Romeo Bautista; former 2/Lt. Jesus Castro; former Sergeants Ruben Aquino, Arnulfo de Mesa, Rodolfo Desolong, Arnulfo Artates, Claro Lat, Ernesto Mateo and Filomendo Miranda and former Constable 1st Class Rogelio Moreno.
In his memorandum to Bureau of Corrections Director Oscar Calderon, Gonzalez said the President had approved his recommendation favoring the appeal for executive clemency of the convicted soldiers.
“I hope their release would finally bring closure to the Aquino-Galman case. Besides, what can they do, they are very sick. I think the only issue left is who was the mastermind,” Gonzalez told reporters.
Gonzalez, however, believes that the pardon granted to the convicted soldiers would not mean their vindication. “I don’t think it can clear their names. They were already convicted and they haven’t said anything that they had not said already.”
He said Mrs. Arroyo issued last March 2 an order commuting the sentence of the 10 remaining detained soldiers whose prison records have also been adjusted for “good conduct time allowances and colonial status they have earned in accordance with the laws and NBP rules and regulations.”
Gonzalez explained that the former soldiers were already qualified for parole after serving over 25 years in prison and having shown good conduct while serving their sentence.
He said he recommended the release of the soldiers upon endorsement of the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP).
The convicts have been detained for the past 26 years for the killing of Aquino and Galman at the tarmac of the former Manila International Airport (now the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) on Aug. 21, 1983.
Some 16 soldiers, including former Avsecom commander Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, were convicted of the Aquino-Galmas double murder and were sentenced to two life terms.
All the convicts maintained that Galman shot Aquino before the soldiers gunned him down.
Custodio died of cancer, while two others died while in detention.
President Arroyo had earlier granted executive clemency to two other former soldiers, Rolando de Guzman and Felizardo Taran Jr.
She also pardoned M/Sgt. Pablo Martines last year, standing by her policy of granting pardon to prisoners who have reached the age of 70.
Gonzalez said aside from their qualification for parole, the convicts were released for humanitarian reasons, considering their poor health.
Based on findings of the Department of Health and doctors at the NBP, the soldiers were suffering from “multiple serious diseases,” like severe hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease, and cerebrovascular disease.
Bishop Efraim Tendero of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, the biggest evangelical church group in the country, had sent a letter to Mrs. Arroyo seeking the release of the 10 soldiers.
PAO recounts struggle of convicts
Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Rueda-Acosta said the 10 freed convicts were brought to the Evangelista Medical Hospital in San Pedro, Laguna, for medical examination.
Dr. Erwin Erfe of PAO said that after the medical examination, the 10 former soldiers would be taken to the PAO office in Quezon City where they will undergo counseling for three days before they are allowed to go home to their families.
He said the soldiers should be emotionally prepared for life outside prison.
The soldiers each received the P200 allowance that all freed detainees get.
“For five years we worked hard for this. This shows what perseverance can do. The first time the Board of Parole recommended their release was in 1996. After 13 years, it was finally approved,” Acosta told reporters.
The convicted killers had not given up and had asked the Supreme Court to reopen their case and grant them a new trial.
In exclusive reports of The STAR, the PAO had tapped forensic experts, among them a University of the Philippines professor, to investigate the trajectory of the bullet that killed Aquino.
Forensic experts found that the fatal bullet had come from the alleged location of Galman.
Senior Police Officer 4 Ruben Cantimbuhan, the driver of the van that took Aquino’s body to Fort Bonifacio, also swore in an affidavit that he saw Galman shoot the former senator.
Military lawyers prevented Cantimbuhan from testifying during the trial, PAO lawyers said.
During the trial, Constable 1st Class Moreno was identified as the gunman who shot Aquino.
M/Sgt. Martinez said he would identify the mastermind of the murder if the Supreme Court reopens the case and allows a new trial.
The SC rejected on March 7, 2005 the petition of the soldiers to have the case reopened.
Lat, who is now 60 years old, was very happy about their release.
“We have been imprisoned for a long time even though all of us are innocent. I would immediately want to see my family. But there are still so many things to do, so many papers that I need to check and apply for since I want to follow them to New Jersey where they are now based,” he said.
Lat thanked God for his freedom.
“I would also want to thank President Arroyo, PAO chief Atty. Acosta, Dr. Erwin Erfe, also of PAO, and my siblings and friends for making this possible, for the continuing support they’ve given me,” he said.
De Mesa, 49, was also thankful and happy that they were finally released from jail.
“Wala kaming kasalanan. Kami lamang ay naging sacrificial lamb. Pero nangyari na ang dapat mangyari. Nagpapasalamat naman kami at ngayon ay laya na kami (We are innocent, we were made the sacrificial lambs. But what has happened, happened. We are thankful that we are now free),” he said.
Moreno, 52, the convicted gunman of Aquino, said that he plans to go home to Pangasinan. “I’m leaving it all up to God. Whatever happens to me outside like if I find a new job, I know God will guide me on what to do.”
He stressed that all of them are innocent of the charges.
Moreno’s wife Alicia said: “Finally, we will be together now. He also has diabetes and his blood pressure is sometimes unstable.”
Malacañang defends release
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the President has the constitutional prerogative to grant executive clemency to deserving convicts under Article VII Section 19 of the Constitution.
He pointed out that the Bureau of Correction’s hospital and the Department of Health have issued separate certifications that the ex-convicts were suffering from serious ailments that made the commutation of their sentences more compelling.
“There have been so many organizations making representations, both religious and civic organizations…they feel this group (10 convicts) stayed longer than necessary in prison but of course the President had to wait for the recommendation of the Department of Justice,” Ermita said.
“They feel that these people have suffered enough and this (clemency) was for humanitarian reasons and we should not allude to this any consideration other than the fact that representations have been made on their behalf so the President exercised her prerogative,” he said.
He said: “Let’s not think of any other motive (for Mrs. Arroyo’s decision).” The family of the late former senator Aquino, led by Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, had criticized Mrs. Arroyo’s move last month to free two convicts in the same case.
Ermita said he hopes the clemency would unify the nation as one of the Arroyo administration’s 10-point agenda was “healing the wounds of EDSA (people Power Revolt).”
He said the commutation and parole was based on “computations” of the BuCor on the good behavior of the convicts while in prison.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Jaro Iloilo Archbishop Angel Lagdameo yesterday said that he was pleased with the reports that the 10 remaining convicts Aquino-Galman double murder case were released after 26 years of incarceration.
Lagdameo told the CBCPNews, the official news service provider of the CBCP, that they welcomed the release of the 10 former soldiers.
Lagdameo said the convicts have long suffered in jail and it is about time they are freed.
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said: “Justice no matter how straightforward should not fail its humane dimension otherwise it becomes cruelty. They have suffered enough and they behaved well so God bless them.”
CBCP-Commission on Prison Pastoral Care Executive Secretary Rodolfo Diamante on the other hand, also said that they could end their lobbying for the freedom of the 10 convicts since they were released. - With Rhodina Villanueva, Paolo Romero, Aurea Calica, Evelyn Macairan - By Edu Punay (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)