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Award to martial law victims executory – US court

MANILA, Philippines — A US court has directed the distribution of $13.75 million to thousands of martial law victims who had won a class action lawsuit for human rights violations against the estate of dictator Ferdinand Marcos over the objections of the Philippine government, their lawyers said on Wednesday.

The money was allocated for the victims in a settlement agreement reached in January 2019 as their share of $32 million obtained from the sale of four paintings, including a Monet, acquired by Marcos’ widow, Imelda.

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Also under the deal, the government was to receive $4 million and the remainder to be split between Golden Buddha Corp. and the estate of Roger Roxas, who reportedly discovered the so-called Yamashita treasure.

A statement by lawyers of the martial law victims said the agreement was executory based on the ruling on Tuesday by Judge Katherine Failla of US federal court in New York.

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The court entrusted the victims’ share to their lawyers Robert Swift, Rodrigo Domingo and Ruben Fruto, who were directed by Failla to distribute the money.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), which is trying to block the distribution of the money to the victims, lambasted the deal for giving criminal immunity to Imelda’s aide, Vilma Bautista, who stashed the paintings, and for waiving the government’s claims over the prized artworks.

In a statement, the OSG said Swift, the American lawyer who has represented the victims in the successful class suit in Hawaii since 1986, stood to gain $4.125 million in attorney’s fees to be deducted from the $13.75-million award, or more than the $4 million that the government was to get.

“Swift’s determination to enforce the award wherever and whenever he deems possible is driven not by the purely noble aim to seek justice and retribution for human rights victims, but by the hefty attorney’s fees he stands to receive,” the OSG said.

It cited Supreme Court decisions that nullified past settlement agreements “because of the baseless and inequitable ratio of the splitting scheme which was manifestly disadvantageous to the government.”

The OSG, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) agreed on March 11 to reject the settlement deal for being “disadvantageous to the government and not in accord with existing Philippine laws and jurisprudence.”

OSG ‘very wrong’

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Domingo told the Inquirer that the OSG’s claim that the lawyer’s fees would come from the $13.75 million was “very wrong” because “the entire amount will go to the victims.”

“This is why we appeal to the OSG to stop blocking this,” said the 82-year-old lawyer, who has spent more than 33 years working for the martial law victims.

Domingo said legal fees had been paid to the lawyers over the span of three decades but said he could not recall exact amounts.

In their joint statement, Swift, Domingo and Fruto said Failla found the January settlement agreement binding on all parties as the Philippine government’s New York attorney had “actual and apparent authority to bind the Republic to the settlement.”

About 6,500 registered members of the class suit, or their duly appointed heirs, will each receive $1,500, they said.

The claims distribution will begin on May 1 at Butuan City in Agusan del Norte province, followed by “sequential distributions” in 15 other cities from May to July.

Letters would be sent to eligible class members to inform them on when and where they should get their checks.

Claimants 1081, Selda

Zeny Mique, executive director of Claimants 1081, a group of martial law victims involved in the Hawaii lawsuit, was designated to coordinate the distribution.

In a text message to the Inquirer, Mique said Failla’s decision “effectively thwarts attempts of the OSG to stop and deprive the martial law victims to just compensation.”

Another group of martial law victims, Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda), lauded the US judge’s action as good news for all victims.

The Duterte administration’s attempt to block the payouts has backfired, said Danilo dela Fuente, Selda vice chair.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo declined to comment, saying he was leaving it to Solicitor General Jose Calida to react.

But when asked whether the country could disobey the US court, Panelo replied: “In the first place, do they have jurisdiction over us?”

The OSG said the government “fully recognizes the right of martial law victims (but) their claims remain personal liability of the Marcoses.”

“Pursuant to Philippine laws, recovery must be claimed before the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board or in the probate proceedings where the Marcos estate is being settled. This procedure was likewise recognized in the rulings of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court and in the United States Department of Justice amicus brief before the United States Supreme Court,” it added.

For elderly, sick claimants

Etta Rosales, former chair of the Commission on Human Rights, told the Inquirer the distribution of the money “must push through as it is a court ruling implementing the historical judgment of the Hawaii District Court.”

“This is the first human rights class suit and its distribution of P75,000 for every claimant will mean much needed funds for their immediate needs. They are all elderly and many are sick,” she said.

In their statement, Swift and the Filipino lawyers said Judge Manuel Real, who presided over the lawsuit in Hawaii against Marcos for human rights violations on March 28, approved the settlement agreement as “fair, reasonable and adequate under US law.”

“The litigation is the first human rights class action in world history,” they said. “Class members are Filipinos who were tortured, summarily executed or disappeared during the martial law years.”

The Hawaii court jury awarded around $2 billion to the  victims of human rights violations, but the amount could not be paid out because the Marcoses continued to hide their assets, according to the lawyers. —With a report from Christine O. Avendaño

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TAGS: Human Rights Victims, Marcos martial law victims, Office of the Solicitor General, Robert Swift
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