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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Torture Victims May Finally See Money From the Marcos Vaults
by Kristina Luz

ON APRIL 4, 1973, MANILA college student Liliosa Hilao was picked up by members of the anti-narcotics unit of the Philippine Constabulary. She was interrogated about her supposed communist links for six hours at the PC headquarters in Camp Crame. Hilao was pistol-whipped, beaten about the head and injected with what the investigators said was truth serum. She was executed two days later. Soldiers later poured muriatic acid down her throat to make the death appear a suicide.

This was the story the coed's mother, Celsa Hilao, told a twelve-member American jury in 1992. The frail-looking woman in her 70s was the first of nine people to testify before the U.S. District Court in Honolulu. They had filed a class suit on behalf of 10,000 victims of human-rights abuses during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1966 until he was forced to flee to Hawaii by the 1986 "People Power" revolt. He died in exile in the U.S. three years later. Hilao and the other Filipinos wanted compensation from his estate, estimated by Manila to be worth about $3 billion.

In January, Hawaii District Court Judge Manuel Real awarded Hilao and other Filipinos some $2 billion in damages. The parties can settle the exact amounts, he said, but set the minimum at $100 million. The court also gave the plaintiffs effective title to the Marcos estate's accounts in Credit Suisse and Swiss Banking Corp. (SBC), originally totaling $356 million and now worth $69 million more. Real granted the victims' request for a permanent injunction on the two banks' assets in the U.S. "I couldn't believe it," recalls Hilda Narciso, who was gang-raped by soldiers in 1979. "Someone, somebody finally listened to what we went through and believed that Marcos had to pay for his crimes."

But the strongman is not posthumously signing checks - yet. True, Marcos's heirs - wife Imelda, son Ferdinand II and daughters Imee Manotoc, Irene Araneta and Aimee Marcos - are not contesting Real's judgment. Manila, which initially insisted that it has first right to all Marcos assets, provisionally agreed on Sept. 13 that Hilao and other victims can get $50 million from the two Swiss accounts, and another $50 million from the Marcoses. The family rejected the deal, but Imelda's American lawyer, James Linn, is talking with the government about a global settlement. Manila insists that the Marcoses settle the claims of the torture victims first. Last week, President Fidel Ramos said he would not sign the pact but hinted that the whole of the $100 million might come from the known Swiss deposits.

Switzerland said in August that the money can be transferred to an escrow account in Manila. But Robert Swift, lead counsel of the human-rights victims, objected. Peter Cosandey, the Zurich prosecutor in charge of the Marcos accounts, has said the money will stay in Switzerland until all parties have settled their differences. "We have a final judgment that the Philippine government and the Marcoses must accept," says Swift. "We'll serve notice in the U.S. on the branches of any bank that has known Marcos assets."

Manila may end up with most of what it calls Marcos's hidden wealth, since its pact with the victims comes to only $100 million. The body tasked with recovering the money, the Presidential Commission for Good Government (PCGG), says it has got back about a third of the deposed president's hoard.

Don't expect to see the Marcoses in the poor house. "In order to recover as much as possible for the benefit of Filipinos," Ramos recently told Asiaweek, "we must be prepared to enter into compromise. "Secret talks in April on ceding 75% of the Marcos estate to Manila ended after PCGG chairman Magtanggol Gunigundo sold a $7.7-million house that Imelda said belonged to Imee Manotoc. "You can take anything from Mrs. Marcos, but what really makes her mad is when the government goes after her children," says Linn.

The landmark case started on Feb. 26, 1986, even as the Marcos family was airborne for Hawaii. Flamboyant American attorney Melvin Belli filed a suit in the U.S. state on behalf of eight American-based Filipinos who said they were tortured in the Philippines. When Marcos landed at Hickam Air Base, Belli's associates had secured a summons from the U.S. Federal Marshal in Hawaii. Marcos refused to meet them. "On the third day it was a tug of war," recounts Fluellen Ortigas, one of the Filipino-Americans. "Marcos kept complaining to President Ronald Reagan that he was a visitor in the U.S., that he was a head of state."

Belli managed to issue the summons and start the legal process. In April 1986, another set of victims filed a separate action. Jose Mari Velez, a leading anti-Marcos activist and the head of a group known as the Society for Martial Law Detainees, persuaded Swift to represent them. Velez was detained and tortured during the Marcos years. President Corazon Aquino named him a director of a government bank shortly after she assumed office in 1986. Velez called on good friend Rod Domingo to help him gather evidence on the strongman's human-rights abuses.

The two men started taking depositions from other ex-detainees. They also interviewed top government officials, including then armed forces chief Renato de Villa, but failed to speak to Ramos, then Aquino's defense secretary. Gen. Ramos had served as Marcos's vice-chief of staff and head of the Philippine Constabulary. Rene Saguisag, Aquino's spokesman and later elected a senator, also helped out. (Velez died in 1991.) "In the beginning it was very difficult to find tortured victims who were willing to talk," says Saguisag, who is back in private practice. "We had so much trouble convincing even 20 people to participate in the class action suit."

Like Belli, Swift based the case on a ruling in the U.S. that allowed non-American citizens to win compensation for human-rights abuses committed outside America, provided the defendants had assets in the U.S. Immigrants from Paraguay, the Filartiga family went to court in 1980 against a U.S.-based captain of their country's secret police. They said the man kidnapped and tortured a relative because of their father's political activities. The captain even brought a Filartiga sister to his home to show her the body of her dead brother. In ruling for the Filartigas, the judge said "official torture is now prohibited by the law of nations [and] the prohibition is clear and unambiguous and admits of no distinction between treatment of aliens and citizens."

In Hawaii, Real directed that the suits of the overseas and Philippine-based Filipinos be consolidated. The cases of Jose Maria Sison, the former head of the Communist Party of the Philippines now in exile in the Netherlands, and his rebel colleagues were also made part of the unified action. Swift and his team settled on 10,000 people as the upper limit of the class suit and chose nine victims or their kin to tell their stories. The jury started hearing testimony in 1992, three years after Marcos died in Hawaii.

Josefina Forcadilla recounted before a packed courtroom how she was seized from her home in 1973, a year after Marcos declared martial law. Forcadilla described how she was beaten and threatened with a hypodermic injection. Rodolfo Benosa, an organizer for the Urban Poor Coalition, said soldiers took him in 1982. "I was stripped naked, punched and had a finger inserted in my eye socket and had hairs on my face and body pulled one at a time," he recalled. Benosa was released three years later. No charges were filed.

Christopher Soria, who now lives in Toronto, refused at first to testify because he feared his status as a Canadian immigrant might be jeopardized. But he was persuaded to fly to Honolulu because his case proved that there was a link between the Office of the President and the police. A social worker, Soria was detained in 1982 on the basis of a presidential commitment order signed by Marcos. At the trial, he said he was stripped, forced to eat paper and given electric shocks from a field telephone. One electrode was attached to his right foot and the other to his genitals. Soria left the Philippines after he was freed in 1984.

"What we wanted to show was a pattern experienced by 10,000 victims," says Swift. "They were arrested at night in their home, were not presented an arrest order until they reached a military camp, questioned roughly by low-ranking military soldiers and then handed over to more senior military officials. These officers in turn would become more physical - rifle butting, boxing their ears. If that wouldn't break the person, they would perform more serious torture methods like injecting the victim with serum and electro-shock them. If that still yielded no response or cooperation from the victim, they'd kill them."

Marcos's lawyers argued that the former president was not directly involved in torture and should not be held responsible for the military's illegal acts. But Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, damaged that contention. He testified that he had discussed the issue of torture in a phone conversation with Marcos. The president told Bosworth: "I'm aware that there is torture and everything happens but this is part of the interrogation process and these people are communists." Other taped conversations between Marcos and U.S. State Department officials helped convince the jury that the Philippine leader sanctioned the human-rights abuses.

A key question for Swift and his team was the matter of the Marcos riches. Even if they win, would their clients get their share? The PCGG was also hunting for the money and a Philippine law requires all amounts recovered from the Marcoses to be used for agrarian reform. By the time Judge Real ruled in 1992 that the torture case could come to trial, the Philippines had already won a request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting any transfer or disposition of Marcos assets worldwide. Though other jurisdictions could ignore the order, many banks and companies have U.S. assets that the PCGG could use as leverage.

Swift had a fair idea of where some of the Marcos loot was. Two years before the torture case was heard, Imelda Marcos was tried by a New York jury for mail fraud and racketeering. She was acquitted but the former Philippine first lady, who once wielded almost as much power as her husband, revealed in a 1991 deposition that Marcos had accounts in Credit Suisse, SBC, Banque Paribas, Lombard Odier et Cie, Swiss Volksbank, Finanz AG and Trade Development Bank in Switzerland, as well as in Standard Chartered Bank, Wing Lung Bank, Hong Kong Bank and Banque de L'Indochine in Hong Kong. Imelda also said her husband had assets in the Cayman Islands and New Hebrides.

One of the Hong Kong accounts gives an indication of how the Marcoses managed to siphon off so much wealth. Filipino businessman Jose Campos has turned over to Manila $134 million in cash and other assets that he says he was holding for Marcos. In an affidavit, Campos said he met P.L. Vine, then chairman of Standard Chartered Bank, at the presidential palace in 1980. "Mr. Vine explained to me that Mr. Marcos wanted me to execute a settlement agreement as a favor to Mr. Marcos," Campos said in his sworn statement. Vine has since left Standard Chartered. Despite repeated requests for him to respond to Campos's statement, he has declined to be interviewed for this article.

As Campos tells it, Vine asked him to sign other documents, including one requesting Standard Chartered Bank to open a U.S.-dollar account and a peso account at Security Bank and Trust Co. in Manila. Former Security Bank president Rolando Gapud testified at Imelda's New York trial that he helped Marcos transfer money. "Twice a month, we would count dollar notes in the basement of Security Bank and then deposit them by wire transfer to accounts in Standard Chartered, Hong Kong," he said.

Swift learned valuable lessons from Imelda's acquittal. "There was too much evidence presented on her husband and not on her, too many witnesses alien to a simple American jury," says plaintiff Ortigas. "We did not want that to happen in Hawaii. That's why the testimony of Bosworth and other State Department officials was important. It brought the message to the U.S. that their government tolerated the practices of a regime." In September 1992, the jury found Marcos liable for the torture and summary execution of 10,000 Filipinos. Real named lawyer Sol Schreiber to take depositions in the Philippines to determine how much each victim would receive.

In his 1995 ruling, the ethnic Hispanic judge divided claimants into three subclasses: those who were tortured, those summarily executed and those who disappeared. Real ordered compensatory damages totaling some $800 million. Individual awards ranged from $10,000 to $185,000, depending on the severity of the abuse - the families of those killed generally got bigger awards - and the income they lost as a result of their detention. In addition, Real awarded exemplary damages "to make an example for the public good" of some $1.1 billion to be shared equally by all claimants. So far, 9,541 people have qualified to receive damages.

Until recently, though, the victims had to contend with another claimant: their own government. "The money must go to the land reform program as mandated by law and the victims must collect afterwards," insisted Solicitor-General Raul Goco in April. But Ramos has had a change of heart. There is speculation that he knew about cases of torture while he was head of the Philippine Constabulary. "The president has made it clear that he wants the victims to be awarded what is due to them," says PCGG's Gunigundo. "He is committed to making sure this is done during his administration."

Former Senate president Jovito Salonga, who once headed the PCGG, is said to have helped change Ramos's mind. "Salonga told the president that the victims pose a moral and political dilemma to his administration," says Saguisag, who is close to the former senator. "He told the president that their claim is recognized internationally because it is a final judgment and cannot be contested." A bill has been filed in Congress amending the law that requires all recovered Marcos assets to be used for land reform.

Despite the ongoing talks with Linn, the deal struck between Gunigundo and Swift looked dead last week. Instead of asking the Marcoses to come up with $50 million in new money, which Linn says is impossible, Ramos is considering allowing the claimants to get the $100 million from the two big Swiss deposits. In exchange, they will be asked to withdraw their objections to the transfer of the money to Manila. Saying Marcos owed them money, a British company has also laid claim to the deposits.

Where does that leave the Marcoses? Warns Gunigundo: "The government and the victims are together and the family will not do themselves any good by continuing to disagree with every side." Imelda is still fuming. "There can never be a settlement as long as Gunigundo represents the government," says a source close to the family. In addition to selling Imee's house, the PCGG chief also upset Imelda when he pulled out of the secret April talks because the widow changed her mind about paying the victims $50 million. "She said the family had to keep $20 million to pay their lawyers and to settle other cases," says the source.

But the pressure is mounting. If the Marcoses appeal Real's ruling, they must post a bond equal to the amount of the award. The U.S. Supreme Court has also upheld the worldwide injunction on their assets. And Credit Suisse and SBC are feeling the heat. They have not gone to court, though they tried to exert pressure on Washington through diplomatic channels. "I don't know what the Swiss banks will do," says lawyer Domingo. "Nobody has cracked the Swiss banking system. This will be the first time."

Imelda herself is appealing her 1994 conviction for corruption in the Philippines. The young Ferdinand, who lost his run for senator in the May elections, was recently convicted of tax evasion. He too is appealing. Other cases have been filed against mother, son and Imee. In May, Imelda claimed victory as the representative in Congress of her home province of Leyte. But she has yet to take her seat. The Commission on Elections allowed her to run, but later said she was ineligible. The Supreme Court has overturned that ruling but the House of Representatives has not decided whether she is the rightful winner.

Manila may decide to bide its time. The Marcoses have been negotiating a settlement on and off since 1990. That year, Imelda turned over to Manila some $1 million in a Los Angeles bank account and $2.8 million in Philippine currency and bank deposits in exchange for the dropping of a racketeering case against her in California. After denying that Marcos owned foreign assets, the widow now claims Marcos was already rich when he was elected president in 1965. But he declared income of only $69,300 and assets of $30,000 in 1966. Marcos has bequeathed his wealth to his countrymen, Imelda also claims. In fact, the document leaves half the estate to her and the rest to the four children, with adopted daughter Aimee given a smaller share.

And the victims of the Marcos government? Communist hard-liner Sison, whose claim for more money was rejected by Real because of incomplete documentation, has branded the $100-million compensation a sellout. But others disagree. "It may not be $2 billion, but in the first place we were not after the money," says claimant Roberto Apacible. What is more important is that the world's dictators have been put on notice that their reputation and their heirs will pay for their abuses. "Your past never leaves you unless you make the bold step to own up to your faults," says torture victim Nitz Concepcion. "President Ramos knows that and that is why he chose to recognize our victory." Only the Marcoses, it seems, have been left behind.

Kristina Luz is a freelance journalist based in Manila

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

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Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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