Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Victims must wait while saga of Marcos' millions drags on

REUTERS , MANILA

When the Philippines' highest court ruled that millions of dollars said to have been stashed away by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos belonged rightfully to the nation, it seemed to mark a happy ending to a 17-year saga.

More than two months after that July ruling, the legal and financial red tape stretching across three continents remains as tangled as ever.

A district court judge in the US state of Hawaii threw the matter back into confusion in early September, infuriating Manila by issuing a global injunction barring banks from transferring the Marcos funds, worth nearly US$700 million, to the Philippines.

Judge Manuel Real said the Philippine Supreme Court had not proved the money was unlawfully acquired and also that it should not have ignored the claims of victims of the Marcos regime.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo blasted the ruling as an infringement of Philippine sovereignty and said it was not valid.

The return of the Marcos millions would be a coup for Arroyo ahead of elections next May in which many expect her to run.

It would also help an economy that is creaking under the twin strains of a chronic budget deficit and US$56 billion in foreign debt.

Many Filipinos are bristling at the apparent interference by their former colonial master and have urged Arroyo to take up the issue with US President George W. Bush when he visits Manila on Oct. 18.

"I am sorry to remind Judge Real that the Philippines is no longer a territory of the United States ... He has no business to issue an injunction," said former solicitor-general Frank Chavez.

In limbo

Other lawyers say it is not that simple.

The ruling has given the Marcos family and its lawyers fresh legal ammunition in their battle to stop a transfer of the funds.

And the case in Hawaii, where Marcos died in 1989 three years after being driven from power by a popular revolt, was brought not by the Marcoses but by some 10,000 human rights victims of the dictator's brutal rule.

Harry Roque, a professor of international law, said on Philippine television that Real had highlighted the need for an international tribunal to settle the matter in a way that would fairly compensate those most hurt by Marcos.

"The [government] policy is let's recover the money and forget the claimants or, if we give some to the claimants, let's give them a few centavos," Roque said.

"That's not correct because how do you put a price on torture, forced disappearances?" he said.

A bill on compensation has been submitted to Congress, and the government is asking the victims to have faith. But many claimants worry that the government, which under current law must use the funds for land reform, will give them a raw deal.

They failed to get anything from a US$150 million settlement agreed with the Marcoses in 1999 after a Philippine court said the money should not come from the disputed bank accounts.

Right now, though, no one is getting any money at all.

The US$700 million, the only portion tracked down of the suspected US$5 billion to US$10 billion plundered by the Marcoses, sits in an escrow account at the Philippine National Bank (PNB).

The rub is that PNB keeps the funds in a range of foreign bank accounts and assets, many in Switzerland, earning plenty of interest but leaving it vulnerable to legal complications.

Tip of the iceberg

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