MANILA — Saying "the time for kindness and patience is over," Philippine President Corazon Aquino on Friday defended the arrest and detention of her chief political opponent, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, for allegedly supporting last December's failed coup.
In her first interview since her most bitter critic was arrested in the Senate last Tuesday, Aquino told The Times that she had been "too patient in so far as my enemies are concerned."
"I always believe that you should give the other person the benefit of a doubt," she said. "But once you are convinced that that person, or those persons, have definitely a different agenda, or totally opposite agenda, then the time for kindness and patience is over. Then just let the full force of the law get to them."
Political analysts say Aquino's new hard-line approach is aimed at countering widespread criticism that she appears weak and vacillating against the mutinous soldiers who have launched six coups against her four-year-old administration. But the analysts warn that the arrest of Enrile has given the ambitious right-wing politician long-denied visibility, and may backfire against Aquino.
"There's definitely a risk," said a Western diplomat. "If the legal case collapses, or it provokes another uprising, she's worse off than before."
In any case, the tough talk has its limits. Aquino said she sees nothing wrong with Enrile's unusual imprisonment: He has six phones, a personal computer, a supply of mineral water, plus his own bed and maid. He has entertained scores of supporters and given near continual news conferences.
"That is all right," Aquino said. "My goodness, this is a free country. And let him have access to the press."
She added that "more permanent arrangements can be made" after the Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday to decide whether Enrile's arrest, and detention without bail, is constitutional. The arraignment is scheduled for Monday.
Until then, Enrile, 66, appears to enjoy his unexpected soapbox in an air-conditioned office at a suburban Manila police headquarters. He offered "thanks to my public relations officer, Corazon Aquino" at a news conference, and later confided to a reporter that the case made Aquino "smell like a durian," a pungent Asian fruit, "while I smell like Chanel No. 5."
Enrile said that he intends to run for president in 1992 if he is cleared of the coup charges.
Aquino said in the interview that she is not concerned that Enrile, who as defense minister under ousted dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos once jailed her husband, Benigno, is using his confinement to launch stinging public attacks on her.
"I am more concerned about due process and the administration of justice," she said. " . . . In the past, people have been complaining that justice is slow and justice is being delayed. So what we are trying to do here is to make sure that justice is there for everybody, and that nobody is above the law. The investigations were made, and based on the investigations, the prosecutors themselves decided that there was enough to warrant the filing of charges."
Renato Cayetano, Enrile's lawyer, said he doesn't expect the 15-member Supreme Court to rule immediately on his petition to free his client. "They may take some time," he said.
Enrile is charged with harboring a fugitive and "rebellion with murder," an offense punishable by life in prison. Court documents show the government's case is based largely on statements by three waiters who say that Enrile hosted a party at his home for fugitive coup ringleader Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan and 100 rebel soldiers Dec. 1, the first night of the attempted coup.
But Cayetano said if the case does go to trial, he has 53 witnesses who will testify that they saw neither Honasan nor any other rebel soldier attend the party. Honasan, the reputed ringleader of the two bloodiest coup attempts and Enrile's longtime chief security officer, is still at large.
Among those indicted with Enrile and allegedly present at the party were hotel owner Rebecco Panlilio and his wife, Erlinda. They surrendered Friday to authorities. At a news conference at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters, Panlilio predicted that he and his wife would be exonerated.
Aquino gave the interview as her military began a sweeping revamping of top officers. At least 20 generals are to retire or step down by April 1, including the heads of the army, navy, air force and paramilitary Philippine Constabulary, and most regional commanders. The new army commander, Brig. Gen. Guillermo Flores, was sworn in Friday.
That may be more important to Aquino's government in the long run than the Enrile case. In an interview last week, Gen. Rafael Illeto, head of the National Security Council, said Honasan's followers are rearming, recruiting and raising money for another coup attempt.
"The military is a clear threat to national security," Illeto said. "And it remains a threat as long as the issues raised by the rebels are not addressed, and the divisions are not healed."
He said the rightist rebels had raised "valid issues" of graft and corruption, and said Aquino is unlikely to heal the deep divisions before her term ends in 1992.
"I don't think she can do it," Illeto said. "It's going to take a full generation."