THE ENDING OF THE SHAM TRIAL AGAINST THE NEGROS NINE
As Columban missionary Father Shay Cullen put it, the prison compound of the Negros Nine became a campus, and in the courtroom it was the Marcos regime on trial.
Australia’s foreign minister, Bill Hayden, had a long private interview in Malacañang Palace with the president in 1984, discussing the legality of the case of the nine charged with mass murder. As each trial day went on, the Marcos administration’s embarrassment over the case became greater.
The Melbourne Herald’s Bruce Dover relayed a letter from the head of the Columban order to President Marcos saying that the Negros Nine were willing to negotiate the dismissal of the case under certain conditions.
The clergymen did not want a pardon, but had demanded charges dropped against the entire Negros Nine. With this in place, the two troublesome foreign priests, Gore and O’Brien, would agree to leave the country.
At the palace for a news conference, Dover and I gave the letter to information minister Gregorio Cendaña, who took it into Marcos in his office as we waited outside. When Marcos emerged, walking with Cendaña to the news conference in the reception hall outside, which Willie was about to film, the information minister nodded at us.
When he spoke, Marcos indicated clearly that an end to the mass-murder case at Bacolod could be negotiated. He said: ‘I don’t know that we should publicly say that we are negotiating a criminal case. ‘What we are negotiating is the original agreement to see if it could be implemented and that they [the priests] be allowed to get out.’
When Bruce Dover asked if there could be a guarantee of no further charges laid against the six lay workers, Marcos responded: ‘I am interested in getting this done with. But to discuss publicly a case that is before a judge … the judge may not feel comfortable.’
The president turned to his justice minister, Ricardo Puno. ‘I would suggest that we quietly look into the possibilities and may I ask the minister of justice to now talk to the gentleman [Dover] and find out what can be done … in the palace. Don’t you think that’s better?’ he asked Dover.
Now the door to a negotiated settlement had been firmly wedged open. With all his woes, Marcos didn’t need a trumped- up case against Catholic priests, in particular, causing international disquiet.
LAST DAY OF THE TRIAL IN BACOLOD
It was the last day of the two year case of the People of the Philippines against the three priests and the six Church layworkers.
The courtroom in Bacolod. The two overhead fans failing to stir the air in that room with its pale green painted walls. The torn curtains either blocking the breeze or allowing the sun in. The ‘Accredited Press’ sign above the filing cabinet which ABC cameraman Willie Phua would sleep against. The little bar with the blaring disco across the road, through the window, which I had never visited but often wanted to. The characters in the case: those you hated and those you loved; those you despised and those you pitied. The Press… you mates. The ‘courtesy of Coca Cola’. Thank God I’m not a lawyer. Struggling for justice in Bacolod. Better a newsman struggling for objectivity.
‘People of the Philippines versus Fr Brian Gore et al’. We stand. Judge Emilo Legaspi’s last gasp. The boys had it as July 3, 1984. The celebratory craft wall hangings in their nearby cell didn’t need re-making.“I really had to make an exhaustive deliberation on the issue’, Legaspi began.“To tell you frankly, last Saturday was supposed to be my birthday, but I did not enjoy the whole day with my family. We just went to church in the morning…’
His Honour went on with some sort of personal explanation which I did not correctly record and which had nothing to do with the issue at hand anyhow. Gore mumbled: ‘Yeah, and we were in bloody jail!’I picked Legaspi up about here: ‘…I request the accused to keep standing while I read my whole order.
'The pending motion (to dismiss the case) appears unusual and unprecedented in view of the fact that the trial has gone on more than half way. However, in the interest of justice, to abbreviate the proceedings as the situation warrants, and due to the appeal of the accused for magnanimity of the government, the court accedes to entertain the present motion to dismiss.
‘In the light of the evidence now on record, judicious re-examination of the court’s previous order denying the motion to dismiss filed by the accused is in order, proper and meritorious.’
The judge added: ‘After careful and judicious re-evaluation of the additional evidence adduced by the defence, in conjunction with the evidence presented by the prosecution, the court is now of the considered opinion that the guilt of the accused for the crime for which they have been charged has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. He didn’t use the word ‘innocent.’
Legaspi concluded: The provincial warden of Negros Occidental is hereby ordered to release the accused. There was a ripple of applause.Fathers Gore and O’Brien, followed by their six mates, eventually walked out of the front gate of Bacolod jail. Both had brief statements to deliver before the waiting media, including the ABC and two commercial TV networks from Australia.
Gore: ‘Well, we are glad to be out, looking forward to a whole new bright future and it’s with mixed feelings. The whole experience has been traumatic for us. We don’t want to go through that again but I think if we had to we would fight for the same cause again for justice for the ordinary people.’
O’Brien: ‘Well I feel great joy to be out of that terrible prison. But this is no more terrible than the conditions under which 50% of the world is living. I know because we want to change those conditions because we believe that as long as 50% of the world is hungry, nobody is free.’
[Taken in most part from Justice in the Philippines by Bob Wurth.]
Footnote: Father Niall O'Brien is sadly deceased. After working for some years in Manila, Father Brian Gore went on to become head of the Columban Order in Australia. Bruce Dover because head of the ABC's Australian Network, provision a TV service to Asia.