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[OPINION] Why we need to remember SC verdict on Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth 

Jul 12, 2023 2:32 PM PHT

Ruben Carranza

The July 2003 decision is the single biggest recovery of ill-gotten wealth against the Marcoses. It also said clearly: Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos stole from their own people.

Twenty years ago this week, the Philippine Supreme Court declared that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos had stolen billions from the Filipino people. 

It will be 20 years ago this week, on July 15, since the Philippines Supreme Court declared that the $680M (₱36B) in Swiss bank deposits in the name of over 14 Swiss entities were in fact part of the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos family. The Supreme Court explicitly described the Swiss bank funds as “money stolen by the Marcos spouses from the Republic.” The Court ordered the money forfeited in favor of the government.  

Why is the July 15, 2003 decision important? 

It is important not only because it is the single biggest recovery of ill-gotten wealth against the Marcoses but also because the highest court in the Philippines said it clearly: Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos stole from their own people. What else can that mean but that they committed corruption – from taking kickbacks to accepting bribes, from using intelligence funds for shopping sprees to outright stealing from government banks, agencies and the national treasury?

How did the Supreme Court reach the conclusion that the Swiss bank deposits were “money stolen by the Marcoses from the Republic?”

By looking at the value of assets and income declared by Ferdinand Marcos as a lawyer and legislator before he became president, analyzing the tax returns the Marcoses filed during the dictatorship, calculating the salaries they earned as President and Governor, respectively, and arriving at the conclusion that the total income and assets they legally earned in the 21 years they were in power was only $304,000. How can a public official with only $304,000 in legal assets and income be able to deposit $680M in Swiss banks?

This is the reason why Republic Act 1379, the forfeiture law, was enacted in 1954: for the assets of public officials grossly disproportionate to his or her legal income, to be presumed ill-gotten and – unless they prove how they legally acquired those assets – to be forfeited in favor of the people. One of co-sponsors of the bill that became the 1954 law was an Ilocano congressman named Ferdinand E. Marcos. In sponsoring the bill, Marcos said it was a way to get back what a public official stole if that official cannot be prosecuted right away or at all. That 1954 Marcos-sponsored law was applied by the Supreme Court on the Marcoses. Their Swiss bank funds were presumed ill-gotten. 

Could the Marcoses have presented evidence showing how they acquired $680M legally? They could have. 

Marcos’ non-defense

But in the more than 15 years that the case was litigated in the anti-corruption court and, when I was in the Presidential Commission on Good Government, they never did. The Marcos family – including now President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr who was part of the case after his father’s death – never submitted a single piece of paper to prove and show how they got so rich, how they could afford the luxurious lives they lived, and where the money to pay for all of that came from. Not a single document. Their only “defense” was their thick shamelessness: Marcos Jr. testified in court not to prove how his parents made so much money but to insist on a compromise (“Over what assets?,” he was asked. “All of it,” he said). 

We refused to compromise with the Marcoses.

A few months before the July 15 decision, Imelda Marcos sent her American lawyer James Linn to the PCGG. Why she would send an American lawyer to discuss a Philippines case says a lot about what she thinks of Philippine justice – that it isn’t to be taken seriously, while a white man, or so she thought, could convince brown people to bend. She was wrong – at least about us. The great Haydee Yorac asked me what I thought we should say. “Show us what assets you actually have that we haven’t found yet and are about to recover. And maybe we might recommended leniency in the prosecution of criminal cases.” Haydee of course was even more adamant: she wanted the Marcoses to commit to pay taxes on all of those assets. Her meeting with Imelda’s lawyer was very short. 

Months later, the Marcoses were once and for all declared by the Supreme Court, in a final decision that they can no longer change even with all the power that their lies have given them back. 

After that decision became final, I took two last steps before I left the PCGG. First, I asked every PCGG lawyer handling a Marcos ill-gotten wealth case to file a motion for summary judgment invoking the Supreme Court ruling. Why? Because the ruling meant that all assets the Marcoses claimed as theirs – from jewelry to paintings to land and bank deposits elsewhere (such as the $50M Arelma account in New York) is ill-gotten because these assets are far beyond the $304,000 legal income they had. This led to subsequent SC decisions in 2012  and 2017 forfeiting Imelda’s jewelry and art collections and judgments in the US recognizing those PH rulings. 

The other step I took was, in many ways, more personal. As someone whose brief detention by the dictatorship caused my mother to endlessly worry about my life and safety, I could only imagine the pain of those whose loved ones were killed, disappeared, sexually abused or tortured by the dictatorship. They deserved justice – justice that the $2-billion judgment by a US court against the Marcoses could not fully give because it was not the State officially  acknowledging the victims of the dictatorship and, even today, the US court judgment is one that the Marcoses have simply ignored.

I drafted a bill that set aside $200M from the $680M we recovered from the Marcos family, to pay for reparations for their victims and to memorialize their heroism – real, selfless heroism and not the kind founded on lies and given by a murderer with political debts. I drafted the bill in 2004, the year I left the PCGG [and the same year I left the country to study in New York and later to work here too.]

Not jailed – but so what?

Those who spread lies for the Marcoses and those who were made to believe in those lies will evade the meaning of the Supreme Court’s description of the Marcoses as  by insisting that neither Ferdinand or Imelda Marcos has been jailed for corruption. That doesn’t mean they were not corrupt or that they did not acquire and hide ill-gotten wealth. Ferdinand Marcos died before he could be prosecuted.

Imelda Marcos has been spending the rest of their ill-gotten wealth to buy delays in the cases against her or worse, to wield the influence that her dictatorship justice secretary still wields in the judiciary including in the Supreme Court. That she was finally convicted at the anti-corruption court in 2018 is proof of how difficult it has been to have judges who can be more consistent (than their colleagues) in seeing the distinctive context of dictatorship crimes and exercising extraordinary righteousness in handling cases involving people as powerful as the Marcoses.

This conviction in fact relies on the same facts that the July 15, 2003 decision of the Supreme Court relied on to describe the Marcoses as  corrupt. If the Supreme Court – as it is now composed – truly respected precedent and the justices individually and collectively value their integrity, then there is only one legally-consistent, historically-founded and necessarily courageous way to rule on Imelda’s appeal over her conviction.

So, 20 years later, now that the Marcoses have lied their wait back to power, it  is even more important to celebrate this hard-fought victory: remember Jovito Salonga and those in his first PCGG. Remember Frank Chavez who assembled the case that led to the judgment. Remember even Justice Francis Garchitorena, whose anti-corruption court decision opened the door to our own decision (led by then solicitor-general Sonny Marcelo and those of us in the Yorac-led PCGG) to take the risk and bring the case to the highest court to end even more of the  Marcoses’ delaying tactics.

And most of all, remember those who fought the dictatorship and how they never lost hope – even when the Marcoses were at their most powerful. As I told the families of dictatorship survivors and victims when they asked me to speak last year at ceremonies to remember those among them who had passed away: “We remember those we lost not simply because they were activists, organizers, fighters or even bystanders taken in the line of the dictatorship’s fire but because they were people we loved, respected, gave birth to, cried for, searched and waited for, took care of, buried and still miss. We must seek justice for them because we love them. We must tell the truth about them because no one else might. But how do we know we can defeat the family that took them away? Because we defeated the Marcoses once before – made them flee in haste and hide in shame, and so, we know that we can defeat them again.” – Rappler.com

The author  was Commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government from 2001-2004 and now works as Director of Reparative Justice Programs and Senior Expert at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York.

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