Thursday, July 6, 2006

How much for a drink of urine?

How much would it be for Wildredo Quijano who was made to drink urine (“I don't know whose urine it was,” he said) and who spent his 17th birthday and nine birthdays after that in prison?

How much should Paula Romero, a former seamstress, receive for her missing son Henry, a newspaperman at the time of his disappearance?

How much for the 34-year-old woman in Mindanao who woke up one night to find her house being set on fire by some 15 armed men who then stabbed her husband who died in front of her? How much for her own 10 stab wounds? This woman bled till morning and was still clasping her six-month-old baby when help came. Her five-year-old child ran for his life and called for help. When the village people came it was already morning but the woman was still alive. I interviewed her many years ago.

How do you put a price tag on the pain of Purificacion Viernes, a health worker from Mindanao whose husband and two children were killed? In 1984, armed men came in the dead of night and strafed the home of the Vierneses who were suspected of being rebel sympathizers. The next thing Purificacion saw were brain tissues and blood splattered all over. Her two children died instantly and she heard her husband breathe his last.

Purificacion played dead when the armed men came up to inspect the place. The men took a look at her and decided to pump one more bullet into her to make sure she was dead. As if that was not enough, a soldier clicked his cigarette lighter and ran its flame on the soles of Purificacion's feet. To see if she would move. She did not and they left her.

Purificacion survived to tell her story. One of her legs was suspended in mid-air when I interviewed her in a hospital. Another one was heavily bandaged. The soles of her feet were swollen.

So how much is Purificacion's share of the Marcos billions? How do you put a price tag on her wounds, her dead husband and sons, the burns on her feet?

I had to scour my “Forever Files” to search for stories like these. I wrote the above in this space 12 years ago in 1994. That was after a US court ruled that $1.2 billion in damages was to be awarded to the almost 10,000 victims of martial rule who filed a class suit against the Marcos estate.

I also wrote then that the Ramos government stood in the way. Its stand then was that the Marcoses' immense wealth should go back to the government because it was stolen from the government. And so it should not be used to indemnify victims of Marcos rule.

Nine years ago in 1997 I again wrote about the victims’ hopes nearing realization when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed with finality a 1995 district court ruling in Honolulu. The claimants' lead counsel Robert Swift said the Marcoses had no further right of appeal under U.S. law. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court already upheld a lower court's ruling on $1.2 billion in exemplary damages. Both class action and direct action plaintiffs had clearly won. There was also the $772 in compensatory damages. These figures and suits could be confusing but just think of a total of $2 billion.

The things you could do with $2 billion, I wrote then. Of course, you do not divide that equally into 10,000. Victims are classified into three general types. But it goes without saying that you cannot quantify suffering and loss. It was not the prospect of money that pushed the 10,000 claimants to file a class suit for compensation. It was justice for 10,001 crimes.

But will the government let go? Silvestre Bello III, solicitor general at that time said the government was “inclined to lay off claim to the Marcos Swiss fund.” Good, I wrote, the government should then step aside and allow the 10,000 victims to get the $2 billion. A big portion of the amount was to come from the frozen assets in Switzerland. Imagine all that money pouring in. That would be much more than what was being sent by Filipino overseas contract workers slaving away in foreign lands.

But it seemed the victims were never going to see the color of that money because the government kept standing in the way. If the government succeeds in snatching that money from the victims, I said then, a curse will be upon this land. Why? The $2 billion might only line a few big pockets. Maybe it will find its way to the national budget and then to the pork barrel, to government projects and offices and the sticky hands of the corrupt. While if the amount were spread around to victims it would go a along way—for education, housing, health, seed capital, etc.

Well, so much has already been recovered and where did these go? Not a cent for the victims. Wala, kahit isang singkong duling.

It is now 2006. Last month, the US District Court of Hawaii sent a notice to 9,539 claimants. The letter gave a background saying: “Following trials in 1992, 1994 and 1995, the Court entered Final Judgment on Feb. 3, 1995 in favor of the Class in the amount of US$1,964,000,000. Your claim is one of the 9,539 (emphasis theirs). The Judgment was affirmed by the US Appeals Court, and is now final.” It also tackled collection proceedings, distribution of the fund, eligibility of class members, attorney’s fees and expenses.

Last week the District Court of Hawaii authorized compensation of $2,000 each to about 7,500 victims (why fewer now?) of human rights abuses. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals awarded the victims $35 million in a New York brokerage account that once belonged to the Marcoses.

The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) is again standing in the way. We call on the spirit of the late PCGG chair Haydee Yorac, defender of human rights, to be the mediatrix.