MANILA — More than four years after President Corazon Aquino's husband was assassinated in a killing that helped change Philippine history, a surprise witness testified today that he saw a government soldier fire a single bullet into the back of the opposition leader's head seconds after he arrived from self-exile in America.
The surprise testimony from airport baggage handler Jesse Barcelona was the first direct evidence in the current murder trial linking the Philippine military to the Aug. 21, 1983, assassination of Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr.
Barcelona, 30, told the court today that it was fear that, for several years, kept him from testifying until now. It was clear that the fear persisted. Barcelona entered the downtown Manila courtroom surrounded by seven heavily armed private security guards, and the court building itself was under heavy guard during his testimony.
Barcelona told the special court hearing the case that at the time of the assassination, he was driving his baggage tow truck toward the plane at Manila International Airport and was 15 yards away from the ramp down which arriving passengers were descending. Referring to the president's late husband, who was wearing a white safari suit as government soldiers took him off the plane, Barcelona told the court: "I saw the soldier at the back of the man in white point the gun at the nape. He fired the gun, and he (Aquino) fell forward."
Barcelona did not identify which of the three soldiers known to have been immediately behind Aquino at the time pulled the trigger. But, after the hearing, Prosecutor Raul Gonzalez told reporters what he saw as the significance of Barcelona's testimony.
"This is the first time that a witness has testified that he saw a gun pointed at the nape of the man in white and heard actually the gunfire itself," Gonzalez said. He added that he has known about Barcelona since 1985 but that the Philippine Airlines employee had said he was "very much scared" to come forward. Gonzalez did not say what changed Barcelona's mind.
The killing touched off unprecedented street protests through 1983 and 1984 against dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who viewed Benigno Aquino as his most potent political rival. And it was the outrage over the assassination that eventually propelled Corazon Aquino to the presidency after the ouster of Marcos in February, 1986.
Marcos and his loyal military blamed the killing on a small-time hood, Rolando Galman, who was shot to death on the tarmac seconds after the assassination.
But most Filipinos blamed Marcos for the murder, although only one witness had previously testified that she saw a soldier fire the fatal shot. The testimony from that witness, Rebecca Quijano, who said she saw the killing through a window on the China Airlines jet that brought Aquino home, was labeled "dubious" by the nation's Supreme Court.
Many of the same soldiers now on trial were acquitted in an eight-month trial that President Aquino's handpicked Supreme Court later ruled that Marcos had rigged. The current trial of about 40 soldiers and civilians charged with the assassination began last May.
Before today, however, there had been little new evidence presented during the current trial, and prosecutors had largely raked over old testimony and photographs taken moments after the killing.