“In questioning the jurisdiction of the military commission, petitioner Benigno Aquino Jr. insisted he was a civilian and his trial by a military commission deprived him of his right to due process…”
In my next three cases, to commemorate the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on August 21, 1983, I will write about the cases involving our national hero during the Martial Law era, a time of terrible injustice in the Philippines.
Following the proclamation of Martial Law in the Philippines, petitioner Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was arrested on September 23, 1972, pursuant to General Order 2-A of the President (Ferdinand Marcos) for complicity in a conspiracy to seize political and state power in the country and to take over the Government.
Aquino was detained at Fort Bonifacio in Rizal province. On September 25, 1972, he sued for a writ of habeas corpus in which he questioned the legality of the proclamation of Martial Law and his arrest and detention.
Aquino then filed before the Supreme Court an action to restrain the respondent military commission from proceeding with the trial of his case set for August 27, 1973.
He challenged the jurisdiction of the military commission to try him for crimes – four counts of subversion, one illegal possession of firearms, and one murder—he allegedly committed and for which he was arrested and detained since the proclamation of martial law.
In questioning the jurisdiction of the military commission, petitioner insisted he was a civilian, and his trial by a military commission deprived him of his right to due process, since in his view the due process guaranteed by the Constitution to persons accused of “ordinary” crimes meant judicial process.
The High Court, in dismissing the petition in Aquino vs. Commission, ruled that the military commission had competent jurisdiction over the accused, reasoning that:
“Martial law lawfully declared, creates an exception to the general rule of exclusive subjection to the civil jurisdiction, and renders offenses against the laws of war, as well as those of a civil character, triable, at the discretion of the commander (as governed by a consideration for the public interests and the due administration of justice), by military tribunals.
“It has been said that in time of overpowering necessity; public danger warrants the substitution of executive process for judicial process.
“The immunity of civilians from military jurisdiction must, however, give way in areas governed by martial law. When it is absolutely imperative for public safety, legal processes can be superseded and military tribunals authorized to exercise the jurisdiction normally vested in courts.”
On whether due process can be guaranteed by a military tribunal, the Court was of the opinion that the guarantee of due process was not a guarantee of any particular form of tribunal in criminal cases.
A military tribunal of competent jurisdiction—accusation in due form, notice, and opportunity to defend and trial before the impartial tribunal present—adequately meets the due process requirement. Due process of law does not necessarily mean a judicial proceeding in the regular courts.
For the Court then, the guarantee of due process, viewed in its procedural aspect, requires no particular form of procedure.
It implies due notice to the individual of the proceedings, an opportunity to defend himself and the problem of the propriety of the deprivations, under the circumstances presented, must be resolved in a manner consistent with essential fairness.
It means essentially a fair and impartial trial and reasonable opportunity for the preparation of the defense.
The procedure before the Military Commission, as described in Presidential Decree 39, assures observance of the fundamental requisites of procedural due process, such as due notice, an essentially fair and impartial trial, and reasonable opportunity for the preparation of the defense.
On the issue whether petitioner’s trial before the military commission will not be fair and impartial, as the President had prejudged petitioner’s cases and the military tribunal is a mere creation of the President, and “subject to his control and direction.”
The Court had this to say: “Prejudice cannot be presumed, especially if weighed against the great confidence and trust reposed by the people upon the President and the latter’s legal obligation under his oath to ‘do justice to every man.’
“Nor is it justifiable to conceive, much less presume, that the members of the military commission, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Board of Review and the Secretary of National Defense, with their corresponding staff judge advocates, as reviewing authorities, through whom petitioner’s hypothetical conviction would be reviewed before reaching the President, would all be insensitive to the great principles of justice and violate their respective obligations to act fairly and impartially in the premises.”
The court added that this assumption must be made because innocence, not wrongdoing, is to be presumed.
The presumption of innocence includes that of good faith, fair dealing and honesty. This presumption is accorded to every official of the land in the performance of his public duty.
There is no reason why such presumption cannot be accorded to the President of the Philippines upon whom the people during this period has confided powers and responsibilities which are of a very high and delicate nature.
The preservation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution rests at bottom exactly where the defense of the nation rests: in the good sense and good will of the officials upon whom the Constitution has placed the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the nation in times of national peril.
What the Court did here was to reverse the long standing rule on presumption of innocence.
Instead of applying it to Ninoy Aqiuino, the Supreme Court gave his accusers and judges the benefit of the doubt.
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