Tuesday, November 22, 2005

21st Century Lawyer Notes on the Bonifacio Trial

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.


Senor Enrique said...

Thank you!

marvin said...

El placer era el mío. Gracias también, Senor.

thepublicthing said...

Ah...historians...luv history, I'll put you in my warrior list Marvin.

dawin said...


Very good juxtaposition of history and 21st century laws. Now, let's have an analysis of the trial of Juan Luna for the murder of his spouse!

marvin said...

Thanks Mr. Regor Aguilar. I wonder how intelligence community was in the time of BOnifacio?

Thanks Dawin. The Juan Luna trial is one great addition to this Famous Trials project series. Mahirap lang humanap ng material.

Rizalist said...

There is one aspect of this I'd like your opinion on. Was the "revolt" really "of" the Masses, or was that an invention of a later ideology? I understand Andres Bonifacio, often portrayed as proletarian, was really a "bodeguero", which in those days meant something quite different than that. Senor Enrique?

thepublicthing said...

we were told that people climb trees and put their ears to the ground to determine enemy presence and spy people. back in the bonifacios time, informants were often servants...my historian teacher was always drunk when he lectured on us and same with other law enforcment professors (look at our police force)...i could have choosen the morning skeds...most of my grades in that school were either incomplete or failed, but no regrets...i can still learn from you guys...

marvin said...


I think to call it a "revolt of the masses" is to see history with the sunglasses of a Marxist, as it were. But you never see the clear picture if you see things thru Marxist glasses all the time.

Bonifacio was aware that the illustrados were out to unseat him. That's why he made that speech shortly before the election in Tejeros where he said that they should respect any one elected even if he be a casillero or toilet cleaner. But, you could findillustrados in the revolutionary army and members of the masonic brotherhood (which is an elite brotherhood). And to them the enemeis were the Spanish conquerors and the friars, not the rich guys.

The rich guys were the first to conceive the notion of self-government (at least on record). That's why you hear Pedro Paterno, the broker of the Biak-na-Bato pact, telling Agunaldo to sign the deal as Pedro Paterno and his fellow educated illustrados have been figthing for the cause in Spain even before the Katipunan was organized, and the futility of it all was apparent

All told, my opinion is that the nationalist ideals were not a monopoly of a single class of Philippine society. Marxist glasses are cool. But hey, that's so seventies.

Rizalist said...

Gee Marv, I didn't really mean to get as far as Marx, because what I was hoping someone like Senor Enrique would point out is that in the late Nineteenth Century Manila, a "bodeguero" WAS an ilustrado, not only literate but numerate, because the bodeguero MANAGED the bodega, not hauled things around like present bodega boys do. The antiquarian Mon Villegas, even claims to have seen love letters of Bonifacio written in Spanish. All I was hoping to get clarified on is how it came to be that most of us today still think of Andres Bonifacio as a PROLETARIAN hero. That's the transmogrification one might ascribe to Marxists, but I like to think of it as an emblem needed by ultranationalists in search of affirmation from dead, or excuse me, executed heroes.

Rizalist said...

You have been blogrolled at Philippine Commentary!

marvin said...


I read an interview of Andres's sister, the name of whom I can't recall, who said that the depiction of Andres and his family as poor is not accurate. The impression I got is that indeed they were not hacenderos, but to make Andres the poster child of the revolting poor in the name of class struggle is off the mark.

marvin said...


Thanks for the blogroll.

rolly said...

I enjoyed all your entries about Bonifacio. I have always been intrigued by the events that led to his death and you have provided all these. Thanks for this post, sir.

Anonymous said...

i clicked you from my comment box. this is one insightful piece. makes you wish our local columnists write similar stuff. thanks for dropping by.


marvin said...


Thanks. The nice thing about blogging is I'm not forced to beat any systemic deadline. Any goals I make are mine and mine alone. And since its an informal medium, the blog is not scrutinized as harshly as the printed publications. In fact, my posts are here, not on a book or printed publication, because I want to test my ideas and see how others view them, before I commit them to the finality of the printed form.

Anonymous said...

The illustrados and elites of the 1896 revolution were more aware of their class than the ordinary masa like Andres. Ergo, Bonifacio is not only an obstacle to the revolution but to their power. After the execution, the revolution against Spain teetered on defeat. Aguinaldo accepted the truce with pay in Biak-na-Bato and opted for an exile in Hongkong following his surrender in December 1897. Kaya pala, Lt. San Juan and other Magdalo officers seems to be learning much from their original Ka. Miyong priciple.
Sana naman, may magawan ng seryosong pelikula si Ka. Andres based from the memoirs of his trusted officers.

rmacapobre said...

Thanks! I love history even more!