The Philippines What "the Crying Lady" Saw

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Moments after Opposition Leader Benigno ("Ninoy") Aquino Jr. was assassinated at the Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983, a Philippine camera crew captured the anguished face of a young woman. To the reporter who questioned her, she replied, "They have killed Aquino. Why are you not crying yet?" Last week Rebecca Quijano, 32, now known as "the crying lady," became the first civilian eyewitness of the shooting to testify in the Manila courtroom where the armed forces Chief of Staff, General Fabian Ver, 24 other soldiers and one civilian are being tried for Aquino's murder. The 26 are also accused of the murder of Rolando Galman, who was identified by the military as a Communist agent and Aquino's killer.

Quijano was a passenger on the China Airlines flight that carried Aquino home after three years of exile in the U.S. She told the court that she was looking through a window of the plane when she saw a soldier wearing a nameplate identifying him as a military policeman about three-quarters of the way down an exit stairway, "pointing a gun at the back of the head of Aquino, and at the same time, a shot was fired."

Her testimony, which was dismissed by the defense as not worth cross- examining, was in sharp contrast to the eyewitness accounts given to an investigating commission, the Agrava board, by the soldiers who escorted Aquino from the plane. They insisted that Galman, a small-time gangster, suddenly appeared and fired the fatal shots as Aquino walked across the tarmac. Galman, in turn, was then shot by security officers. Chief Prosecutor Manuel Herrera, who escorted the terrified Quijano into the Sandiganbayan, the court where the trial was in its eleventh week, did not ask her to name the assassin. But Herrera speculated that he could be Metrocom Constable Rogelio Moreno, who walked down the airplane stairway behind Aquino.

Quijano's account is the strongest evidence offered yet by the prosecution, which is expected to wrap up its case later this month. Four other witnesses' appearances were canceled after they recanted the testimony they had made before the Agrava board, whose reports to President Ferdinand Marcos led to the trial. One witness, an airline employee, said at first that he had seen someone pointing a gun at the back of Aquino's head on the plane ramp; later he swore that before the shooting, a gun had been pointed at him and he had fainted. Even Galman's stepdaughter recanted after having told the Agrava board that her mother disappeared, following a summons from General Ver, three months after the shooting. The Galman family lawyer charged that representatives of the defendants had offered bribes to the stepdaughter. Said Andres Narvasa, the Agrava board's general counsel: "They (the witnesses) have become convinced it would be unhealthy for them to speak out."

That explanation was supported by Quijano, who said that she had been threatened before the trial. She said that as she spoke to reporters in the ) airport moments after the shooting, Colonel Vicente Tigas, one of the defendants, forcibly pulled her away and whispered, "Don't talk or you'll get in trouble."

Quijano had offered several times to testify before the Agrava board. Each time, however, she failed to appear for an interview. Last December, when she was arrested and charged with five counts of minor fraud, she was publicly identified as the missing witness in the Aquino case. But she returned to hiding after her release from government custody and the dismissal of all but one of the charges.

What finally brought her forward, she told TIME last week, was the belief that going public might be her safest alternative. Said Quijano: "I have no way out. I could not lead a normal life." She endured a chilling moment during her testimony when there was a brief power failure. As the courtroom was suddenly plunged into darkness, Quijano clutched Prosecutor Herrera's arm tightly and pleaded, "Please don't leave me here." Minutes later, the trial resumed.