Quo vadis human rights claimants?
By Gina Mission
Second of two parts

his history of the human rights claimants dates back to 1985 when SELDA was established by former political detainees, led by Fidel Agcaoili as founding secretary general, with Don Chino Roces as founding chairman.

___When the Marcoses were ousted from power in a popular people’s revolt in February 1986, the euphoria felt by the Filipino people was so "overwhelming" that SELDA deemed it necessary to institute measures to remind the nation of the Marcos’ crimes against humanity.

___Immediately after the EDSA revolt, SELDA’s legal counsel, Atty. Jose Mari Velez, was tasked to look for means to prosecute the Marcoses. After his return from his trip to the US, Velez reported to SELDA Executive Board that an American lawyer named Robert Swift had offered to help the victims in filing charges against the Marcoses in the US.

___It was agreed to verbally between Swift and the SELDA National Executive Board that Swift’s law firm - Kohn, Savett, Klein & Graf, P.C. - would be the one to shoulder all the litigation expenses up to the time the case is won. Upon recovery of awards, Swift would get his lawyers’ fees and reimbursement for all the expenses incurred.

___On April 7, 1986, invoking the Aliens Tort Act, SELDA filed the case against Marcos in the Federal District Court of Honolulu in Hawaii, in the sala of Judge Harry Fong, then docketed as In re: Estate of Ferdinand Marcos Human Rights Litigation (MDL 840) with Swift as lead counsel and Atty. Jose Mari Velez as co-counsel.

___Later that year, the Federal District Court of Hawaii dismissed the case, ruling that Marcos had a privilege of immunity from suits. Swift appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit. Meanwhile, Judge Fong was replaced by Judge Manuel Real in 1991.

___In June 1991, Velez died, and was replaced by Atty. Romeo Capulong upon the decision of SELDA Executive Board. Capulong questioned the lack of any written agreement between SELDA and Swift, especially in the matter of lawyer-client relations, stressing that SELDA did all the work in looking for the named plaintiffs, helping in the depositions, getting the materials for the case, and all necessary work for the lawyers.

___Because of this, Swift, according to Capulong, should therefore be accountable to SELDA as a central organization which represents the victims so that they can have an organization representing their interest in any stage of the case. Capulong also complained that there was no written agreement on the issue of attorney’s fees of Swift and other lawyers involved in the case.

___Consequently, SELDA’s chairperson, Dan Vizmanos, wrote a letter to Swift inquiring about Capulong’s advice regarding the written agreement. Swift didn’t take such action too kindly. Even as relations with Swift and the officers of SELDA Board were starting to sour, however, SELDA continued helping him in the preparation of trial briefs.

___On September 9, 1992, the trial of the case against Marcos began. Two other direct-action cases were consolidated with the case of the victims. One case was filed by the US Group of 21 (group of political prisoners who migrated to and settled in the US), represented by Atty. Melvin Belli, and by the Group of Three (Jose Maria Sison, Francisco Sison and Jaime Piopongco), represented by Atty. Paul Hoffman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Capulong.

___On September 22, the Federal Court issued its judgment in favor of the Marcos’ victims, holding Marcos guilty of gross human rights violations, and his estate liable for damages to the victims.

___In 1993, the Ramos government, through former Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) chair Magtanggol Gunigundo, entered into a 75%-25% sharing agreement with the Marcoses, a decision that the Philippine Supreme Court has since struck down, as of May 19 of this year.

___Meanwhile, the relationship among claimants also soured, which led to the creation of Claimants 1081. The group’s secretary-general, Ramon Casiple, revealed to CyberDyaryo that there really was a felt need to set up a legitimate claimants group outside SELDA, as they felt that SELDA was attending to too many things to represent the claimants properly in the prosecution of the case against Marcos.

___The present secretary-general of SELDA, Marie Hilao-Enriquez, however, said that the real reason why Casiple, together with other claimants, who were also SELDA members, formed Claimants 1081 is because they were losing credibility within SELDA.

___"Etta Rosales and Casiple were ousted from their BAYAN positions, and so they took advantage of the internal squabble of SELDA. They were ‘groupless’ at that time. They needed a group to ‘adopt’ them. Realizing that Swift and Capulong did not get along well with each other, they formed Claimants 1081 and claimed themselves as the real representatives of the claimants," Enriquez stressed.

___Both SELDA and Claimants 1081 claim they have the majority membership of the claimants. SELDA said that it has more than 7,000 members of the nearly 10,000 claimants. Claimants 1081, on the other hand, is also saying that it has around the same number of members.

___Enriquez said that the trouble with Claimants 1081, is that "they’ve been blinded by the settlement money. They don’t even care about the overnight insertions made by the Marcoses."

___Casiple maintained his group’s position that the overnight insertions were immaterial to the agreement. "You can only make a compromise deal within the parameters of the case. Since the original case was civil in nature, we cannot probably ask that the Marcoses be held liable for any criminal act that is not even mentioned in Real’s decision," he said.

___"Besides, some of the claimants have died already. Should we wait for everybody to die before we do something? We know we can’t get the money as fast as we would have wanted to, because the Marcoses are resorting to all legal means to delay the enforcement of Real’s decision," Casiple said.

___In a reversal of roles, Claimants 1081 is now charging SELDA to be the one whose only concern is money. "They don’t think about the claimants’ welfare. They don’t want the compromise deal because they want the whole amount. They don’t care whether the claimants will live to enjoy whatever the little amount can offer them. They want all the money," said Casiple.

___In the meantime, everybody is waiting for the next action. Will the Sandiganbayan grant the PCGG’s petition to allow the transfer of the $150 million from the escrow account to the Hawaiian Court? If so, will the Supreme Court allow it, considering that there’s a forfeiture case filed with the Sandiganbayan by former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez? How long will, or can, the human rights claimants wait for justice to be done?

CyberDyaryo | 1999.05.27