Washington — The pincers of the United States legal system are closing on Ferdinand Marcos, ex-president of the Philippines. Mr. Marcos himself is not about to make a forced personal appearance in some court. But lawsuits are already tying up some of his alleged US assets, and sheriffs bearing legal papers are showing up at his door.
Thirteen Filipinos have filed suit against Marcos in a San Francisco federal court, accusing him of ordering their imprisonment and torture.
On Monday, a state judge ordered a halt to any transactions involving two lavish New Jersey houses linked to Marcos. Similar action may come soon in Texas and California.
The Philippine central bank is suing Marcos in a federal court in Hawaii, asking for return of the crates of pesos that were part of the former dictator's luggage.
It will probably be some time before any of these cases are resolved. But it seems that Marcos's concern that he would be ``harassed'' by legal actions in the US is coming true.
The San Francisco action, in which Marcos is accused of personal violation of human rights, is particularly intriguing to legal scholars. They note that it is being brought under a 1789 statute, adopted by the first Congress, which may allow aliens to sue in US court if they feel they have been the victim of a breach of international law, no matter where that breach occurred.
In 1980, using this law, a Paraguayan doctor won a $10 million judgment in federal court against a policeman who had tortured his son to death back home. The policeman, who was living in New York at the start of the trial, fled the US before the trial ended. This made enforcement of the judgment problematic.
There are crucial differences in these cases. Marcos, for instance, is alleged to have only ordered torture, not to have done it himself. Some federal judges don't feel the 1789 law can be used in this manner. Still, ``this one might get some Supreme Court attention,'' muses William Lake, an lawyer with the Washington firm of Wilmer Cutler & Pickering.
The 13 plaintiffs -- an assortment of Filipino opposition politicians, student activists, and others, who are now living here -- are asking for a total of $715 million in damages. According to their attorneys, Honolulu sheriffs have been attempting to serve Marcos with a copy of the complaint, but have not got past the gates of the US Air Force base where the Marcos entourage is staying.
The New Jersey property case is only one of what promises to be a string of actions involving real estate said to be owned by the Marcos family. These cases are being pressed by a Philippine government commission that is seeking to regain what it says are corruptly acquired Marcos assets.
As well as the New Jersey houses, five New York properties linked to Marcos have been frozen by state courts. In the New York case, lawyers representing the Philippines have won the right to take a deposition from Mr. Marcos. According to Mark Bernstein, a Honolulu lawyer working on the case, Marcos has already been given proper legal notice of the deposition request. ``Whether they will comply, I have no idea,'' he says.
To acquire title to this disputed real estate, the Philippine commission will first have to prove that Marcos or those close to him actually own the property. Then, it must be proved that these gains were bought with money corruptly acquired back home.
The commission's US lawyers are working hard at piecing together proof of ownership. Toward that end, they say, the US government should let them see the cases of documents that were part of the luggage Marcos brought to Hawaii and have been impounded by the US Customs Service. ``Anything less smacks of complicity with Marcos,'' charges David Lerner, a spokesman for the public-interest lawyers representing the Philippines.
Lots of people want to get their hands on that luggage, which included money, jewels, documents, and firearms. The Philippine central bank, for instance, wants the 22 crates of pesos, on the theory that carrying so much cash out of the country violated Philippine currency control laws. A US court in Hawaii is considering their request.
US government officials, embarrassed by the Marcos loot, want to have no part in determining its ownership. State Department officials say they have decided to turn the items over to a federal court, which, as a neutral party, would determine dispensation.