The common verdict of historians is that Bonifacio had a mock trial. There are various reasons cited, e.g. Andres’s counsel Placido Martinez was also a judge, the accused did not have a chance to cross-examine the witnesses against them, the prosecutor asked leading questions, etc.. I do agree with some of them. But let me add a few more reasons to show why the trial was indeed a sham.
1. There was no law against treason.
Whenever confronted with a legal problem, lawyers have a common first impulse. They check the law. And we look at the trial of the Bonifacio brothers, and we find no reference to any law or edict that defined the crime and specified the penalty charged against the Bonifacio Brothers. The Tejeros Convention was an election, but there was no governing law that defined the powers of the elected officials and governed the conduct of citizens. That’s why when the prosecutor asked whether the accused knew if there was a government there, they had to say no. Sure, there was a president, but what were the powers of the President? What was his basis for saying he could do this and that as president. There may have been a president, but surely without laws, there was no government. Where was it written that Bonifacio could not carry a gun? There was a revolution going on, everybody had to carry a gun. How could a trial be fair when there was no law on which the accused is going to be tried?
A dictatorial government would have sufficed at that point. Aguinaldo could have claimed, “I am a dictator, whatever I say is the law.” That would have saved the day. At the very least, all that he needed to do was publish his laws. “It is treason to plot against the President, and it is punishable by death.” That would have given the Bonifacio brothers and all the men under them a fair chance, for at least there was a common measure by which all those ruled could judge their conduct, and Bonifacio and his counter-revolutionary plots would have been justly punished. Yet, Aguinaldo would only think about law and governance much later on with Apolinario Mabini on his side. In the meantime, he had to charge Bonifacio with the crime of treason and sedition, when Aguinaldo himself did not define what constituted the crime of treason and sedition and the punishment for such acts. Bonifacio could have lit a cigar; and without any law but the barrel of his gun, Aguinaldo could have cried that was treason, too. What chance did the Bonifacio brothers have?
2. The Council of War lost jurisdiction on the venue of the crime.
The second point is a little bit technical. It is an elementary principle in criminal law that jurisdiction in criminal law is territorial. Simply put, a government can enforce its criminal laws only in territories were it exercises sovereignty. A murder in Japan, for example, may not be tried and punished in the Philippines. In the same way, a murder in Manila may not be tried and punished in Japan. In the case of Bonifacio, the acts charged against him were all committed in territories where Aguinaldo’s forces have lost jurisdiction, as they have fallen to Spanish hands while the trial was ongoing. Indang and Naik fell. Daniel Tirona and his lawyer candidate Jose del Rosario surrendered to the Spaniards as San Francisco de Malabon fell. What then was the basis of the criminal jurisdiction that Aguinaldo was enforcing against the Brothers Bonifacio when Aguinaldo himself had lost power over Indang and Naik where Bonifacio’s alleged crimes were committed? As a matter of fact, Aguinaldo’s government itself was on the run against the Spanish Army which at the time of the trial already exercised sovereignty over those territories. After Naik and Indang fell, any treason committed there could only be committed against, and tried and punished by the Spanish Army. Aguinaldo had lost power to try and punish Bonifacio’s crime, if indeed, there was a crime.
Given that there was no governing law and that Aguinaldo had lost jurisdiction over the crime, what was the trial for? This reminds of a common government tactic we find nowadays. Whenever a government executive wants to do something that is not popular, somebody would file a court case, and then there would be court order telling the executive what to do. So whenever there was a backlash, the executive would say, oh it’s not me, it’s the court.
Look at Aguinaldo after Bonifacio’s death. Aguinaldo could always point to the Council of War that decided on the death penalty and the generals, Pio del Pilar and Mariano Noriel, who persuaded him to reverse his pardon. I could almost hear him saying, “Don’t blame me, it’s the Council of War… it’s del Pilar… it’s Noriel…it’s….” Hail Aguinaldo! The father of legal ruse.
I was toying with the idea, what if I were Bonifacio’s counsel, what would I have said in that trial? Well, points one and two above, and then probably, a little speech that would appeal to the interest of the Council of War. The Aguinaldo magic was a myth. The early victories were getting reversed. The revolution in Cavite was about to fail. Meanwhile, Bonifacio still had clout outside Cavite. Bonifacio could still save the revolution. Bonifacio had Batangas. Bonifacio had the rest of the Tagalog region in his wings. While Cavite was falling, the rest of the nation was still at war. The Katipunan was still in place. And if the Cavitenos failed, the revolution was still on in other parts of the Tagalog region, and they could be relied upon as sanctuary for the weary Cavitenos, including the members of he Council of War. Besides, what was the risk on Bonifacio, he had not even won a battle? But he was great organizer and his organization was still in place. That’s why it was to the interest of the Council of War to let Bonifacio go and re-organize the Katipunan elsewhere outside Cavite.
I don’t know if that would have worked. Maybe not, but all that is academic now, because we already know that after Bonifacio’s death, the revolution would be dissipated, and Aguinaldo would opt for a settlement with Spain, brokered by Pedro Paterno in Biak-na-Bato.
For further reading, do check out the following books:
Teodoro Kalaw's "The Court Martial of Andres Bonifacio",
Teodoro Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses, Adrian Cristobal’s, The Tragedy of the Revolution, Abraham Sarmiento’s Andres Bonifacio: the Appeal, Memoirs of Artemio Ricarte, and Ambeth Ocampo’s Bones of Contention. These are all in circulation.