A federal judge said Friday that he will order two Swiss banks to turn over to court custody hundreds of millions of dollars from former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos' estate to partially satisfy a $1.9-billion verdict won by 9,400 victims of human rights abuse.
U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real in Los Angeles did not issue a formal order but told attorneys for the banks and the victims that he plans to do so soon.
He spurned a request from Paul Bschorr, a lawyer for Swiss Bancorp, to delay issuing any decision before a high-powered bargaining session, scheduled for Jan. 15 in Hong Kong. That session will be supervised by Chester A. Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state in the Ronald Reagan administration who now chairs the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace.
The banks set up the Hong Kong mediation to try to maintain the secrecy of their operations. They have never acknowledged how much Marcos-linked cash they hold. But on Friday, they submitted to Real--under seal--an inventory of their holdings, believed to be about $475 million.
Bschorr said the banks hope Crocker can persuade Philippine government representatives, victims and Marcos' widow, Imelda, to settle the conflicting claims to the $475 million held by Swiss Bancorp and Credit Suisse. Imelda Marcos has not said if she will participate in the Hong Kong session.
Robert Swift, lead attorney for the human rights plaintiffs, said Real's announcement was a major development in the long case and could lead to money getting to the correct parties. "We know there are assets in Switzerland," he said. "If the funds are not transferred, people like the Marcoses just get away with all the evil they have created."
The Philippine government claims it is entitled to the Swiss sums because they are part of billions of dollars that the Marcoses looted from their native land and deposited around the world. The Philippine Commission on Good Government has searched for the money for almost a decade and has recovered about $100 million in Marcos-linked assets in the United States but nothing in Switzerland.
Documents obtained by the Philippine government from Swiss authorities and used in 1991 charges in the Southeast Asian country revealed that the Marcoses deposited at least $356 million in Swiss banks. That sum reportedly has grown to $475 million.
Real indicated Friday that he would institute a legal procedure in which contested funds are turned over to a court and a judge resolves the conflicting claims. It is possible the procedure will be unnecessary, if an agreement is reached in Hong Kong. But Real would have to approve any settlement.
A jury in Honolulu awarded the victims $1.9 billon in compensatory and punitive damages last year, ruling that Marcos, who died in exile in 1989, was responsible for major human rights abuses, including torture and murder.