The Light A Fire Movement - Heroes or Terrorists?

Sunday March 27, 2016 ()
Raul Daza, Heherson Alvarez, and Steven Psinakis
(Undated photo. Raul Daza, 3rd from left; Heherson Alvarez, extreme right; Steven Psinakis, seated)

One almost forgotten chapter of Martial Law history was brought back to our consciousness with the recent death of Steven Psinakis, one of the leaders of a group called the "Light-A-Fire Movement". It was a group of prominent people who decided that violence was the solution against "abuses" of the Martial Law. They perpetrated many terroristic bombings in Metro Manila in the early 80's. They trained mostly in the United States, with targets here in the Philippines.

In the US, its members were Filipino exiles and Filipino-Americans, mostly unnamed but led mainly by Heherson Alvarez, Raul Daza, Bonifacio Gillego and Charles Avila, along with a naturalized American citizen, a Greek native, Steven Psinakis (husband of Precy Lopez of the Lopez clan).

On September 12, 1980, bombs went off in Metro Manila, one badly damaging Rustan's mall in Makati. The explosion at Rustan’s injured 70 people and killed an American tourist. On the night of October 4, 1980, more blasts rocked the Philippine Plaza, Century Park Sheraton, and Manila Peninsula hotels.

Doris Nuval Baffrey, a Filipina married to an American, on October 19, 1980, detonated an explosive at the PICC while President Marcos was addressing an international conference of the American Society of Travel Agents. Doris Nuval Baffrey and 15 other people were arrested in connection with the PICC bombing. Marcos issued more arrest orders for some 30 persons allegedly indirectly tied to the bombing including Ninoy Aquino and 8 others living in the US, among them Psinakis. Baffrey's group, the "April 6 Liberation Movement", had ties to the Light-A-Fire Movement.

In Metro Manila, the core operatives of the Light-A-Fire Movement based in the Philippines, was arrested while meeting in Quezon City. Among them were businessman Eduardo Olaguer, AIM professor Gaston Ortigas and Ester Jimenez, mother of Jim Paredes (of the Apo Hiking Society fame). They were all convicted and sentenced to die by electric chair in 1984.

In the US, long before the Marcos regime collapsed, the US federal prosecutors had handwritten notes of a 1986 meeting of Federal prosecutors and an undated draft indictment that would have allowed the United States Attorney to bring criminal charges against Alvarez, Daza, Psinakis, Gillego and Avila for activities to oust President Marcos. The possible charges included violation of the Neutrality Act, which prohibits launching private armies from the United States against nations with which US is at peace. The indictment was based on wiretaps, including one or more initiated by U.S. intelligence agencies, and 1981 searches of Psinakis' home and garbage in which agents found remnants of detonation cord.

Additionally, the US federal prosecutors' notes indicated that Psinakis, Daza and Gillego were also giving weapons training in the Arizona desert to anti-Marcos exiles. The draft indictment also alleged that Avila, Daza and Alvarez practiced making bombs in Psinakis's home in San Francisco.

From the fall of 1979 through December 1981, the documents claimed, various members of an anti-Marcos group, the "Movement for a Free Philippines", practiced detonating explosive devices in Arizona and transported explosives in at least four states. They further alleged that the training was part of a plan to bomb targets in Manila in an effort to destabilize the Marcos regime.

However, US Justice Department officials astutely informed the United States Attorney, Joseph P. Russoniello, that the State Department was concerned that the fledgling Aquino government would be embarrassed if the charges were pressed against the Aquino officials. These concerns are expressed in notes from a meeting at the Justice Department on August 25, 1986, six months after Mrs. Aguino's inauguration.

Heherson Alvares became Minister of Agrarian Reform (later Senator), Raul Daza Commissioner of the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG), later became representative of Northern Samar, Bonifacio Gillego was executive director of the PCGG who also became a congressman, Charles Avila, Mayor of Tanauan, Batangas.

When the indictment was finally filed in December 1986, it named only two naturalized American citizens, Psinakis and Avila. Avila was never arrested or arraigned. It is in Psinakis case that has brought to light the allegations against the 3 government officials (Alvarez, Daza, and Gallego).

It was reported that Foreign policy concerns may have influenced the decision of Federal prosecutors not to prosecute the 3 who became members of Philippine Congress. A former associate deputy attorney general, Gregory S. Walden, testified that after the indictment was returned naming only Psinakis and Avila, "there was an expression of relief" from the State Department that the case "had narrowed considerably".

James A. Lassart, the assistant United States attorney who handled the case for 5 years, resigned the month after the August 1986 meeting.

Daza when contacted in Manila, was asked about the allegations:

"These charges never materialized. They were not even charges. They never matured into an indictment obviously because the prosecution had no evidence to sustain the indictment."

Alvarez:

"That's not true at all, I'm scared of bombs."

Gallego:

"My position on that issue is like the American position on nuclear weapons. I neither confirm nor deny."

Psinakis was arrested as he arrived at San Francisco International Airport on a business trip in July, 1987 from Manila and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and $20,000 in fines.

He was freed on $200,000 bail but retained his passport after President Aquino's consul general was authorized to commend him to the court for "brave and untiring efforts to restore freedom" in the Philippines.

The notes of the Justice Department meeting on August 25, 1986 which was under seal, but much of their contents were revealed in the October hearing, said that the State Department had expressed "special sensitivity" about an allegation that explosives were picked up at the Manila home of Jovito R. Salonga in 1980 (at that time Salonga was president of the Philippine Senate), about the time bombings injured 70 people and killed an American tourist, and that "Salonga's involvement would come out at trial".

The Aquino government, deeply concerned in the fate of Psinakis, sent Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus to testify, told the jury that Psinakis was a "hero".

Psinakis was acquitted in June 1989.

Six months after his arrest, Psinakis was awarded the Aquino Government's first Presidential Citation "for outstanding service to Philippine democracy". He was cited for his work "as an officer of patriotic Philippine exile organizations". In an interview while he was in San Francisco for the October hearing, Mr. Psinakis said, "Rightly or wrongly, I'm perceived as a hero in the Philippines".

And now the question. Are these people really "Heroes" or just "Terrosists"?

Source:

  1. Philippine Revolution Hero Acquitted in Explosives Case, Dan Morain, Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1989 (http://goo.gl/IUnkXL)
  2. Court Case Links Aquino Allies to Bomb-Making, Katherine Bishop, New York Times, December 15, 1988 (http://goo.gl/woBC5n)
  3. The 1980 ASTA bombing at the PICC, http://wiki.iraia.net/
  4. The Light-A-Fire Movement was not Heroic, Get Real Philippines, (http://goo.gl/dxyYo7)
  5. Photo credit: http://lopezlink.ph/


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