Filipinos Battle Over Millions in Dictator's Loot

TO get an idea of how some Filipinos feel about the news that a Swiss court approved the transfer of nearly $500 million of Marcos family wealth to the Philippine government, one can listen to President Fidel Ramos.

The move ''represents an unprecedented ... moment in the odyssey ... to bring back the ill-gotten wealth,'' he said.

Zurich Judge Peter Cosandey's approval capped a decade-long legal struggle by the Philippine government to recover the wealth it claimed former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family looted while they were in power for 20 years. Officials here estimate the wealth hidden overseas behind shell companies in Europe and the Caribbean to be more than $5 billion.

But the saga is far from over. Swiss authorities say the money is to be held in escrow in a Manila bank until Philippine courts determine who should get it. The government, the Marcos family, and 10,000 victims of the Marcos regime are claiming it. In 1992, these victims won a class-action suit in Hawaii in which a US judge ordered the Marcos estate to pay them $2 billion. These human rights victims, the court agreed, were tortured or had relatives kidnapped or killed for opposing the late dictator's repressive regime.

Lawyers for the class-action-suit victims want the Ramos government to award $100 million of the Swiss money to them. The obstacle is a law passed in 1987 stating that all of Marcos's illegally obtained money is to be put in a land-reform fund to benefit landless farmers.

Ramos, however, has assured the rights victims of a ''solution.''

The Swiss court also required a conviction in a fair trial of Marcos's widow, Imelda, to prove that the Swiss money was ''ill gotten.'' The court decision, announced Aug. 21, was possible because the Swiss court finally decided to relax its rigid rules regarding what the Philippine government needed to do before it could allow the return of $475 million.

The Philippines government filed 79 criminal charges against Mrs. Marcos. She was convicted in September 1993 for graft and sentenced to 24 years in prison, but on charges not related to the Swiss accounts. Marcos is now free pending appeal.

Philippine officials say that changing conditions may be the reason why Swiss Judge Cosandey approved the transfer before final conviction of Marcos.

Philippine solicitor-general Raul Goco says the Swiss judiciary was convinced that Marcos could get a fair trial in Manila and that she was given due process. He says the Swiss government action was a result of pressures within Switzerland and questions about whether its banking system had become a repository for the money of third-world dictators.

The hunt for Marcos's wealth began the day after the dictator was overthrown in a ''people power'' revolt in February 1986. He died in exile in Hawaii in 1989.

Magtanggol Gunigundo, head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) responsible for tracking the missing millions, said the unfreezing of the accounts will likely lead to breakthroughs in other cases. The Swiss move, he points out, is recognition that the Philippines claims on the Marcos millions elsewhere are valid.

FOR her part, Mrs. Marcos responded to the Swiss court's decision by playing on populist themes. ''I'm happy if there is a decision to bring the so-called Marcos assets to the Philippines ... because since the death of my husband, I have been concerned about the implementation of his last will and testament to give his wealth to the Filipinos,'' she said in a statement.

Government attempts to negotiate privately with Marcos to bring the money back have foundered.

Besides the lengthy Swiss court challenges, the case has moved slowly at home. Part of this was due to incompetence and corruption within the PCGG as well as the slowness of the judicial system.

The PCGG has recovered precious little of the Marcos assets overseas. A worldwide hunt has yielded six properties in the US totaling $6 million.

After paying off American lawyers and other costs, the Philippines netted $2,000, according to former solicitor-general Frank Chavez, who filed most of the cases against the Marcos family.

''That's how lucky we are,'' he sighs. The Swiss transfer, he says, represents more than just money. It is also a reminder to the Manila government that its quest is finally getting somewhere.

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