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Philippines Soldiers Convicted of Aquino Assassination Freed


Ten former soldiers convicted of being involved in the Philippines' most prominent assassination case have been released from prison after more than two decades. But President Gloria Arroyo's decision to free the killers of former opposition leader Benigno Aquino has been condemned as an act of "political vengeance".

Just after noon, Wednesday, the 10 former soldiers walked out of their cells at the National Bilibid Prison, in suburban Manila, where they have been detained for nearly 26 years.

Cabinet Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita says President Gloria Arroyo ordered the soldiers' release because of poor health and good behavior.

"This was justified because of humanitarian reasons," he said. "They are suffering different kinds of ailments."

Many Filipinos still have vivid memories of the crime these men have been convicted of - the assassination of popular opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, in August 1983, minutes after landing at the Manila airport following years in exile in the United States.

His death sparked national outcry and resistance against the rule of Ferdinand Marcos, which culminated in the 1986 "People Power Revolution" when street protests and military defections forced the Marcos family to flee to the United States. Aquino's widow, Corazon, was installed as president.

The soldiers released Wednesday were part of a group of 16 people who got life sentences for Aquino's murder. They have insisted they were innocent and that the assassination was carried out by a lone pro-communist gunman, who was killed on the spot.

Three of those convicted died while in prison and one was released in 2007. Two others were released last month.

Aquino's son, Senator Noynoy Aquino, condemned the earlier release and accused President Arroyo of using, in his words, "the pretense of mercy as an act of political vengeance" because of his family's criticism of her government.

Senator Aquino says the soldiers never told the truth on who ordered them to shoot his father. Former President Corazon Aquino has always said she believes the order came from top authorities in the Marcos government.

Cabinet Secretary Ermita said there was no ulterior reason for the president's decision.

"We should not think of any other motive other than the fact that president thinks it's about time they be given such an executive clemency," he said.

On Wednesday, Senator Aquino declined to make further comments. A spokesman says the senator stands by his earlier statement.

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