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Jailed Filipino likely to be a senator

Antonio Trillanes faces two trials on charges that he led a 2003 coup attempt. But last month he attracted more than 11 million votes.

June 13, 2007|Paul Watson and Sol Vanzi | Special to The Times

FORT BONIFACIO, PHILIPPINES — In the annals of political comebacks, Antonio Trillanes' must rank among the most unlikely. After campaigning from a cramped cell in a marine brig, the alleged coup leader is poised to win a Senate seat.

Four years ago as a navy lieutenant, Trillanes allegedly led more than 300 troops against the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Last month, he ran for the Senate as a prisoner held at the headquarters of the Philippine marine corps.

If unofficial results are confirmed by the country's election commission, Trillanes soon will be one of 12 winners in the races to fill half the Senate seats.

Arroyo's government insists that Trillanes is a criminal, and that regardless of the election results he will stay locked up. Officials have issued gag orders against him, but judges keep overruling them. When the government tried to prevent The Times from interviewing and photographing Trillanes, his attorneys got a court order granting access.

Trillanes is being prosecuted in a civilian court in the alleged coup plot, and in a general court-martial, where he is accused of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Trillanes recently was warned by the Justice Department not to "utter seditious statements."

He was led into the interview Friday wearing a black polo shirt and navy blue chinos. With a marine military policeman glowering over his shoulder, and military officers watching through the chain-link fence around the brig's small visitors room, the inmate chose his words carefully.

But he remained defiant, declaring that he considers himself a political prisoner. If Arroyo loyalists try to prevent him from taking his seat in the Senate, Trillanes said, "they will have to face the wrath of the people."

His election will show "that Filipinos are now beginning to realize the power that they have to choose their own leaders," he said.

In the Philippines, senators are elected by a nationwide vote, so the seats up for grabs in the May 14 midterm election go to the top 12 vote-getters. So far, the election commission has declared 10 winners.

Unofficial results based on partial ballot counts and exit polls suggest that Trillanes placed 11th. He has more than 11 million votes in the current official count, but he claims he has been cheated out of about 1 million votes.

Election commission Chairman Benjamin Abalos signaled last week that he might declare the prisoner a winner soon if it appeared mathematically impossible for contenders to overtake him.

The military said this week that it was carrying out a poll of troops to determine the depth of support for Trillanes and any anti-Arroyo views. The opposition condemned the survey as a violation of the troops' right to a secret vote.

But the military also appears resigned to a Trillanes victory.

"As a former officer, he can be an ally in the Senate," armed forces spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro told reporters Tuesday. "We are not threatened. There is nothing to fear."

Arroyo, who was elected to a six-year term in 2004, has withstood at least two coup attempts as well as efforts to impeach her. She's in no mood to congratulate Trillanes.

"If he gets elected, then he still has to acquit himself before the military justice system and the civilian courts on the cases against him," Arroyo's executive secretary, Eduardo Ermita, said last week.

Trillanes says he is prepared to work as a senator from his prison cell.

"We'll try to do something about these restrictions by filing motions in court," he said. "But if that doesn't work, we'll find another way. We can set up telephone connections here and have conference calls. We can also conduct committee hearings here. We can also craft legislation here."

Trillanes is accused of leading junior officers in the July 27, 2003, coup attempt, which fizzled out in less than 18 hours. Holed up with his men in a hotel catering to foreign executives in Manila's financial district, Trillanes surrendered after failing to rally support from the military or public.

He later apologized, but in the interview, Trillanes insisted that he had not tried to overthrow Arroyo's government.

"We delivered our grievances to the people and left it up to them to decide what they want to do," he said. "We owed it to them. It was our duty to give them directly all the information about wrongdoings that we witnessed, that were not addressed by our superiors."

For a military prison, the brig that holds Trillanes and some of his supporters seems quite relaxed.

It is surrounded by a whitewashed wall that is about 8 feet high and topped by a chain-link fence and concertina wire. A sleepy bulldog lay chained by the front gate, and a child's pink pedal car was parked in a corner of the visitors room. A military band rehearsed on a parade ground nearby.

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