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This Day in History: Ninoy Aquino was Sentenced To Death by Firing Squad 43 Years Ago

He had been sentenced to die years before he was gunned down by an assassin.
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August 21, 1983 is well known in Philippine history as the day Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was felled by an assassin’s bullet upon his arrival at the Manila airport that now bears his name. The outspoken critic of then-President Ferdinand Marcos had been in exile in the United States for three years and had been warned that he might lose his life if he ever decided to come back to his home country. 

We all know how that story ended. What’s lesser known is the circumstances that led him to leave the Philippines in the first place.

Aquino had been in jail almost as soon as Marcos declared Martial Law in 1977. It was no secret that the two were fierce political enemies and once the writ of habeas corpus was suspended (a consequence of Martial Law), Aquino was one of the first people arrested on charges of subversion, illegal possession of firearms, and murder. Prosecutors charged that he was a ranking member of the Communist Party, of helping finance rebels and subversives, and organizing violent anti-government demonstrations. 

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Aquino was taken to Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija where he was tried by a military tribunal. Instead of defending himself, Aquino used the courtroom as a forum to attack Marcos. He said that the seven-man tribunal could not legally try him since its members were loyal to their commander-in-chief, which was Marcos. 

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“I rather choose to follow my conscience and accept a tyrant's revenge,'' he said.

On November 25, 1977, the tribunal handed down its decision: Aquino, who was 44 at the time, was found guilty of all charges and was sentenced to death by firing squad. Two others were sentenced with him: Bernabe Buscayno, also known as "Commander Dante," a leader of the New People's Army, and a policeman turned guerrilla, Lt. Victor Corpus.

"If Marcos believes I'm guilty. I want to be shot tomorrow," Aquino reportedly said.

But Marcos commuted his death sentence. Aquino would remain in jail for three more years until he suffered from two heart attacks in early 1980. Marcos allowed him to fly to the U.S. to undergo a coronary bypass operation in May that year. Although he had initially said that he would be gone for only three weeks, the senator ended up staying in America for three years.

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Marcos had technically lifted Martial Law in 1981, but it became clear that he had no intention of giving up power. Aquino then felt it was his duty to challenge Marcos’s rule and made the decision to return despite threats of assassination. 

"My feeling is we all have to die sometime and if it's my fate to die by an assassin's bullet, so be it," he said.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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