Thursday, December 11, 2008

Claimants 1081's prize: So near, so far

MANILA, Philippines—They have won but where’s the prize? It is a breath away. So near and yet so far.

Despite victory in the courts, some 10,000 victims of human rights violations during the Ferdinand E. Marcos dictatorship remain empty-handed.

Four administrations after Marcos have not helped in dispensing justice to the victims and have instead stood in the way. For the final hurdle, lawmakers have only to sign the Human Rights Compensation Bill, but why the long delay?

“The Republic of the Philippines has succeeded in blocking the Marcos victims from the partial enforcement of a judgment they had won in US courts,” said former party-list Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales.

Rosales is chair of Claimants 1081, an organization of victims of abuses under the dictatorship. The figure referred to Marcos’ martial law proclamation.

Herself a victim-claimant, she was detained twice during the martial law years, tortured and sexually molested.

Tortured and waiting

Dead, dying, aging, sickly, poor. Many had waited for so long until time overcame them. Many of them are now senior citizens.

Hilda Narciso, 63, was mistakenly arrested and detained, tortured and raped repeatedly by soldiers in Davao City in 1983. Her case was nationally and internationally known.

Inday Olayer, 60, was detained in 1981 along with her husband Joseph Olayer. Soldiers put bullets between her fingers and pressed them hard in order to exact information from her. “For two years I could not use my hands and sign my name in front of authorities,” she recalls. “I was so traumatized.”

Her husband also took the blows. His head was dunked in a toilet bowl, he was made to lie on blocks of ice, electrocuted and was hit in the balls.

Peter Villaseñor, 50, a peasant organizer, was arrested in Bataan in 1982. He remembers: “I was tortured for nine days and nine nights. I was stripped naked and given the water torture. I was made to lie down and a wet cloth was placed over my face. They hung a bucket of water above my face and let the water drip on my face whenever I refused to answer. I would gasp for air, like I was drowning.”

Daisy Valerio, 58, and two sons, are among the families under Claimants 1081. Her husband, former priest Nilo Valerio, was killed by the military in Benguet in 1985. His body was never recovered.
Class action suit

Two months after Marcos fled to Hawaii in 1986, victims of human rights violations filed a class action suit against Marcos.

The move was based on a 200-year-old US Alien Tort Law that provides victims of despotic leaders the right to seek redress against these leaders in US courts as long as these leaders reside in US territory and are found guilty by US courts.

The suit was filed in the Hawaii Federal District Court on behalf of 9,539 victims of martial rule. In 1995, the victims won a final judgment from the court and were awarded $1.9 billion comprising $1.2 billion in exemplary damages and $700 million in compensatory damages.

In 1997, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled to transfer $540 million in Marcos Swiss dummy deposits. These were to be placed in an escrow account in the Philippines and released on two conditions:

• That the Philippine government must obtain a final judgment in its own courts entitling it to the money.

• The government should compensate the victims who obtained the US judgment.

P472-M docket fee

To seek enforcement of the judgment in Philippine courts, the claimants filed a case in a Makati district court in 1997. They were shocked when they were asked to pay an exorbitant docket fee of P472 million.

They asked the Supreme Court to rule against this filing fee. Sadly, the tribunal sat on it for six years. The court moved only when the claimants elevated the matter to the United Nations Committee on Civil and Political Rights.

After six years, the court decided on a mere P410 filing fee instead of the P472 million. It was a long, long wait.

The UN Human Rights Committee issued a decision declaring the long wait “unreasonable, resulting in a violation of the authors’ rights.”

In 2007, the claimants’ counsel wrote the Philippine solicitor general attaching the UN decision and asking how the solicitor general could assist the victims in enforcing their judgment in Philippine courts. Again, a long delay.

Arelma case

Meanwhile, after nine appeals, the Hawaii court conducted a trial of a complaint against Merrill Lynch for allegedly holding Marcos assets in the name of Panamanian corporation Arelma Inc. In 2006, the court awarded the Arelma assets of $35 million to the claimants.

The Hawaii court ruled that while the $35-million Arelma assets would scarcely satisfy the $1.9 billion judgment, it had a symbolic significance.

But in 2006, the court granted the Presidential Commission on Good Government’s (PCGG) motion for a stay of the distribution of the $35 million to the victims.

The Supreme Court would later rule that neither the PCGG nor the Philippine republic could have access to the $35 million in Arelma. The Sandiganbayan must first prove that this is part of the forfeiture of a case which was finally ruled by the Supreme Court as ill-gotten.

The Arelma money, Rosales argues, cannot be considered a part of the Swiss deposits. It could go straight to the claimants, but the Philippine government has put so many blocks along the way.

The last hurdle is the passing of Human Rights Compensation Bill. Part of the Marcos ill-gotten wealth, or $1.9 billion, should go to the claimants.

Not all the recovered ill-gotten wealth should go to agrarian reform and therefore the agrarian reform law has to be amended.

The Philippine Senate has passed the bill. The House of Representatives has stalled and is sitting on it. The long wait is far from over.