Making Amends for Marcos : Unusual human rights case seeks damages from dictator's estate

Justice, of a sort, has finally caught up with Ferdinand Marcos, three years after the brutal Filipino dictator died in exile in Hawaii.

In a precedent-setting case, a federal jury has found Marcos responsible for thousands of human rights abuses carried out over 14 years when he governed under martial law. The decision in a unique class-action suit holds the Marcos estate liable for damages to up to 10,000 plaintiffs--the victims and the surviving relatives of those who suffered under Marcos' rule. Evidence exists documenting more than 2,500 summary executions, more than 5,500 cases of torture and 783 disappearances of foes of the Marcos regime.

A separate trial will be held to determine damages. Lawyers for the plaintiffs seek awards of $2 million for each torture victim and $3 million for each of those murdered or missing. Marcos is believed to have stolen up to $10 billion during his 20 years in office. Members of his family, cronies and political supporters benefited through a pervasive system of property theft, rake-offs and bribes.

The Philippine government continues to seek the return of family assets from abroad that it must first show were illicitly obtained. In effect, plaintiffs in the class action now become competitors with the Philippine government for this wealth. Identifying and locating the carefully hidden bulk of the Marcos estate is likely to remain difficult.

The case, filed in Honolulu, is the first in the United States involving damages for human rights abuses in another country. Jurisdiction was made possible because Marcos, after his overthrow in 1986, was granted political asylum in Hawaii and so became a U.S. resident.

If nothing else, other tyrants are now on notice that they could face legal action for crimes they commit at home, should they seek asylum in the United States. But there is as well a special moral dimension to this case. Successive U.S presidents, for reasons of foreign policy, continued to support Marcos long after his depredations were known. The verdict in Honolulu helps make some modest amends for that.

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