SCAPEGOAT: Memories of August 21, 1983: The Assassination of Sen. Ninoy Aquino



SCAPEGOAT.

That was the word that came to mind when I heard my dad’s voice over the radio saying that Senator Ninoy Aquino was shot upon arrival at the airport. It was a slow sad voice. And it was the start of a difficult seven-year journey for our family.

Scapegoat. That is what happened. My Papa, Major General Prospero A. Olivas, was eventually charged as an accessory in a double-murder case, dubbed as the Trial of the Century.

It’s a memory that comes alive every August 21 whenever the death anniversary of our hero, Senator Ninoy Aquino, is commemorated. It has been 39 years, and I feel this is the time to tell my story. I was 22 when it happened, and I am now 61. I hope that this will release me from all emotions that meet me this time each year. 

When I heard his voice on the radio, I knew that my Papa would be in the public eye to bear the arrows that the Marcos administration will receive because of this. Until now, sadly, the mastermind of that heinous act has not been identified. 

It was a Sunday, August 21, 1983. I was a working student at the UP College of Law, and we had an exam in a subject called Property that afternoon.

My boyfriend Jun Quinto picked me up in law school after the exam and as we went to the parking lot, my sorority sister, Melva Evangelista, saw me. She said “Chato may nangyari daw kay Ninoy, umuwi ka na.”

Jun and I went to Sinugba Restaurant in Timog because he gave me a treat for finishing all my exams. Then my Papa’s voice came over the radio saying that Senator Aquino was shot. It sounded like a sad, uncertain voice. I don’t know if it came across that way to others. 

He was tasked to lead the investigation of the case. He submitted his report to the fact-finding board that was created by President Ferdinand Marcos. The board issued majority and minority reports, with the majority report finding that Papa was indictable as an accessory in the double-murder case involving the death of Senator Ninoy and his alleged gunman Rolando Galman. Papa was charged as an accessory because he supposedly knew of the conspiracy to assassinate Senator Ninoy and that he tried to cover up.

Trial took place for almost two and a half years before the First Division of the Sandiganbayan. At times I attended the proceedings. And I felt that my Papa’s side was not heard in the media. So I went to the office of the Philippine Inquirerand talked to editor Letty Jimenez Magsanoc. She wrote an editorial about my visit entitled “The Other Side of Defense,” allowing me to be heard. Looking back now, it was more of a child’s expression of faith for her father.

There were more than 25 accused in this trial and all were acquitted. Of course people got angry!!! Two people died of multiple gunshot wounds and nobody was guilty???

The prosecution brought the case to the Supreme Court on a petition for review. The Supreme Court constituted a commission which found that “the judgment of acquittal was rendered by reason of undue pressure from Malacañang.” (People v. P/BGen. Luther A. Custodio et al, Crim. Case No. 10010 and 10011, September 1990, Sandiganbayan) The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

It was hard for my mom and siblings. It was shameful to see the news headlines in the streets, hear them on radio and television, about Papa being indicted in a double-murder case. I didn’t want to know the news, and yet I wanted to know. 

One of my professors, Atty. Salvador Carlota, said one night before class that there is nothing sweeter than the vindication of history. I don’t know why he said it but it touched me and I wrote it on the flyleaf of my administrative law book. That gave me encouragement through the years. Later, when I taught at UP Law in 2009, I sought him out and thanked him. I said, “Sir, I was your student years ago. I don’t know if you remember me sir, but I want to thank you because what you said stayed with me and sustained me.” He replied, “It’s good to see you now giving back to the University.” Bless him. 

Law school being what it is, a couple of professors mocked me in class. One of them whose name I won’t mention called me the Star Witness for the Prosecution whenever he called me for recitation. “Let’s see what the Star Witness for the Prosecution has to say” and the subject was on civil law, haha, totally unconnected. I resented him, and in my mind, I was shooting him with an imaginary gun. But my face did not show my feelings.

Most of the professors were professional, and they did not insult or mock me. Thank God for them. 

But then I knew people wanted to read my mind, hear my thoughts, about what was going on. I didn’t want anyone to know how I felt. What did I feel? I was hurt and angry. I was Papa’s girl.

I was quiet and poker faced. I learned to control my feelings which turned out to be good for the kind of law practice that I engaged in later, which is litigation. 

As I said, in the first trial, all of the accused were acquitted. I had a class that evening. Nobody talked to me, not even my close friends. I tried to put myself in their place, to understand their reaction. There was a board in the lobby where the law students wrote their reactions. One of my classmates kept saying, “Sabi na nga ba nag-suicide si Ninoy.” 

Because the Supreme Court found that the first trial was a sham, it was retried and by then, Mrs. Cory Aquino was already the president of our country.

At that time, I was already an attorney. At first, I did not involve myself with the case because I was a newbie. I became a lawyer in 1988, and I was just beginning.

One day, while at work, I thought what should I do if Papa asks me to join his defense team? I called my friend Dr. Marie Arranz, and asked for her advice. I also read the Bible and saw this verse: “But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers.” (1 Tim. 5:8 NLT) I knew that was God’s instruction for me to say yes.

It was then that I decided to join my Papa’s defense team, if he asked. A couple of hours later, the phone rang. It was Papa. He said, “Anak, would you join the defense team for me? I am about to testify and I want you to be the one to present me on the witness stand.” I said yes, Papa I will. 

I told our senior partner Atty. Bob Parel of Gozon Fernandez Defensor & Parel where I was an associate at that time. He said, “We’ve been waiting for you to say that, Chato. Go, go, go now. You can take a leave for as long as you need.”

I went home and spent mornings, afternoons and evenings interviewing Papa and studying tons of evidence and documents. I was catching up. All these were accumulated through many years, and I had to understand everything.

When I attended the trial, I entered my appearance as collaborating counsel, together with Atty. Armando Marcelo. Justice Regino Hermosisima Jr., presiding justice of the Special Division of the Sandiganbayan, asked if I am the daughter of the accused Gen. Olivas. I said yes, Your Honor.

When it was Papa’s time to testify, I presented him on direct examination. Towards the end of his testimony, when I asked him “How did the filing of this case affect you and your family?” He looked at me, he was silent, he broke down on the witness stand, and wept like a child. 

So I looked at the justices, and asked for a recess, which they granted.

We approached him, his aide took off his barong and took his blood pressure, and let him rest. I asked him if he wanted to continue to the next day (the trial was almost every day for whole days, if I recall correctly). He said he wanted to continue and finish today. I asked what happened, why did he break down. He said that he couldn’t bear it when he looked at me, and what this case was doing to the family, that even I was already involved in this trial. But after resting, we continued until he completed his direct and cross examination that day. 

After trial, the Sandiganbayan came out with a 184-page decision. Insofar as Papa was concerned, it states:

“In connection with the above-entitled cases, the only acts of General Olivas were: to gather evidence against the possible perpetrator or the perpetrators of the killing of Senator Aquino; to collate evidence gathered in connection therewith; and to make proper recommendations on the basis of the evidence gathered. That the accused Olivas made certain conclusions inconsistent with the facts is not necessarily a violation of the law herein cited. Certainly, in so acting he did not conceal or destroy the body of the crime or the effects or instruments thereof, in order to prevent its discovery.”

I remember that day of the second acquittal. My mother, Dr. Lita Ramos-Olivas, was with me and my brother. We accompanied Papa for the promulgation.

After the promulgation, my mom wept silently out of joy and relief. She covered her face. I saw a journalist with a camera trying to catch a photo of her crying, so I blocked his view. Then he stood on one of the tables to try to get a shot. I blocked my mom, it was our private moment, and I told the journalist please don’t take our picture. He obliged. I knew this was a good shot. I am a journalism graduate, and we know good sensational news when we see it.

My journalist friends and even a journ classmate asked for an interview. I politely declined. We just wanted peace and quiet after this seven-year ordeal.

But all around me, it was surreal. Some of the accused who were convicted were wailing. I remember one of them weeping and banging his arm against the wall. His wife had a picnic basket beside her, and I guess they were planning to have a little celebration at the Luneta after the promulgation. At the time, the Sandiganbayan was located by the Luneta. I cannot forget that sad sight.

Papa decided to live a quiet life as mayor of a small town. I would say that he was loved, and he reached a third term which he did not complete because he passed away of kidney failure after ten months of dialysis.

I pray that the truth of who the mastermind is will be known someday.

As we wait, let’s do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Micah 6:8

Experiences teach us life lessons. So what did I learn from all these?

1. Always stand by the truth.

2. Put yourself in other persons’ shoes to understand why they react in certain ways. They react based on what they know. On the basis of what they can see. 

3. Be humble. Think of yourself with sober judgment. (Romans 12:3)

4. If you seek justice for yourself, you must do the same for everyone else. 

5. Choose your battles.

6. There is nothing sweeter than the vindication of history.



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