Fact check: SC voided military tribunal's conviction of civilian Ninoy Aquino

Fact check: SC voided military tribunal's conviction of civilian Ninoy Aquino
In this Aug. 21, 1983 photo, the remains of Ninoy Aquino, President Ferdinand Marcos' staunch critic, lies on the ground shortly after he alighted from the plane.
Presidential Museum and Library / PCDSPO / Asiaweek

MANILA, Philippines — Social media chatter painting former Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. as a convicted criminal who therefore supposedly deserved death came on the national holiday commemorating his assassination.

CLAIM: Former Sen. Ninoy Aquino Jr. was a convicted criminal and his assassination at the then-Manila International Airport, later renamed to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, was simply the government's implementation of his death sentence. 

RATING: This is false.

FACTS: While a military tribunal declared Aquino a criminal, the Supreme Court has said that a military commission does not have the jurisdiction to do so in the presence of functioning courts, thereby rendering the supposed conviction null and void. 

What the posts say

Pro-administration Facebook accounts — mostly unnamed and faceless profiles claiming to represent pro-government groups — came out with the new narrative on Ninoy Aquino Day. 

"From the vantage point of the Establishment during that time, it was just punishment for any interloper," Facebook accout TPL3, which has over 16,000 followers, said in a post. 

"Especially, when the said interloper was already tried and convicted for the crimes involving murder, illegal possession of firearms, and treason and was actually sentenced to die by musketry in the first place. So, Ninoy getting shot on the tarmac that day saved the Government bullets, that the firing squad would have used on him had they been the one to carry out his sentence."

Another Facebook page claiming to be the Malaysia chapter of the Partido Federal Ng Pilipinas International Affairs, supposedly made up of overseas Filipino workers supportive of Marcos, cited a 1977 article by the Washington Post and amplified the claim that Aquino was convicted by a military tribunal in Manila of charges of subversion, murder and illegal possession of firearms.

Facebook user "Cocky Rocky," whose page has 37,000 followers, pointed out that the Plaza Miranda bombing’s 51st year and Ninoy’s 39th death anniversary are commemorated concurrently as he called them "two of the most dastardly political plots to incriminate President Marcos."

"As the historical distortionists celebrate a convicted criminal tomorrow, let us all keep in mind that Marcos was exonerated of the bombing," he wrote. 

What they left out

During the bloody Martial Law regime of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., Aquino, a vocal critic of the Marcos administration, was imprisoned for about eight years.

In the eyes of the state, Aquino was indeed convicted: Once the writ of habeas corpus was suspended, he was among the first people arrested on charges of subversion, illegal possession of firearms, and murder. 

Prosecutors with the military tribunal claimed that he was a ranking member of the communist party, accusing him of funding communist rebels and subversives, and organizing violent anti-government demonstrations. 

On November 25, 1977, the tribunal came out with its decision: Aquino, 44 at the time, was supposedly guilty of those charges and was sentenced to death by firing squad. 

But the Supreme Court years later overturned that conviction, pointed out, as Aquino himself did, that a military tribunal created by the dictator Marcos could not legally try him. 

In G.R. No. L-54558 May 22, 1987, the Supreme Court called it a "fundamental question of whether or not a military tribunal has the jurisdiction to try civilians while the civil courts are open and functioning."

It agreed with the view that "military commissions or tribunals have no jurisdiction to try civilians for alleged offenses when the civil courts are open and functioning." 

The High Court also said that the then-president and dictator "denied to Aquino the very self-same right to due process and judicial process" that he invoked in claiming himself President of the Philippines. 

"It is Our considered opinion, and We so hold, that a military commission or tribunal cannot try and exercise jurisdiction, even during the period of martial law, over civilians for offenses allegedly committed by them as long as the civil courts are open and functioning," the SC said. 

"Any judgment rendered by such body relating to a civilian is null and void for lack of jurisdiction on the part of the military tribunal concerned."

It went on to say that because of this, its pronouncement in Aquino, Jr. v. Military Commission No. 2 and all decided cases, "should be deemed abandoned."

Essential context

The commemoration of the opposition figure's assassination at the Manila International Airport in 1983 has been declared by the government a national non-working holiday in the Philippines observed annually on August 21.

Agencies of the Marcos Jr. administration were largely mum despite the holiday.

Social media accounts of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group even went as far as linking the former senator to the New People's Army. Their posts also said that Ninoy was not a hero. 

The 19th Congress has seen the filing of bills to rename the Ninoy Aquino International airport, either back to its original name or after the sitting president's father and namesake.

Aquino, who was killed as he was getting off a China Airlines flight that brought him back from exile in the US, had been honored as a democracy icon by previous administrations.

His assassination ultimately led to the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos on February 25, 1986, through the People Power Revolution. 

Why does this matter?

According to CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool by Meta which manages Facebook, 60 posts mentioning the words "Ninoy convicted" were posted in the past 24 hours.

From August 21 to 22, the posts drew a collective 17,000 interactions. 

Franco Luna reviewed by Kristine Joy Patag

This story is supported by the Philippine Fact-check Incubator, an Internews initiative to build the fact-checking capacity of news organizations in the Philippines and encourage participation in global fact-checking efforts.

Philstar.com is also a founding partner of Tsek.ph, a collaborative fact-checking project for the 2022 Philippines’ elections and an initiative of academe, civil society groups and media to counter disinformation and provide the public with verified information.

Want to know more about our fact-checking initiative? Check our FAQs here. Have a claim you want fact-checked? Reach out to us at [email protected]

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