US court adds weight to human rights claims under Marcos

Activists in Manila are urging President Noynoy Aquino to support a bill that would officially recognize human rights violations during the Marcos regime of the 1970s and 80s. The two-and-a-half decades-long effort for official recognition and compensation got a boost earlier this month when a US federal judge in Honolulu approved distribution of $7.5 million to victims of torture, abduction and execution under Marcos.

Ferdinand Marcos received the strong support of former US President Ronald Reagan during his rule.

But Satur Ocampo, a board member of the Samahan ng mga Ex-detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDO), a group of former political prisoners, challenged the removal of 2,013 victims from the case. According to the Associated Press, the federal court’s decision will distribute funds to 7,526 petitioners, which would amount to $1,000 each. Distribution will begin as early as mid-February.

“We reiterate that while we welcome this development, we raise questions as to how the court-appointed lawyer Attorney Robert Swift has considered the victims’ views on the case,” Ocampo told the Philippine Star. Ocampo called on Aquino to support the Marcos Victims Compensation bill, which he said, would officially recognize human rights violations during the Marcos martial law era.

Not everyone here in Manila is happy with the developments. Juan Ponce Enrile, who served as Defense Secretary under Marcos and is now the Senate President, criticized the US court decision and defended Martial law.

“Martial law was an act of State under the Constitution. It was not done arbitrarily,” Enrile told the Philippine Inquirer.

(I remember last June, watching Aquino’s inauguration along with millions of others in Manila, when Aquino’s victory was officially announced by Enrile himself on the Quirino Grandstand – an interesting twist of fate. )


Like many things in the Philippines, the past is a contested field. According to Luis Francia’s account of the heady days just before martial law was declared, a staged assassination attempt on Enrile provided cover for the government to declare martial law and clamp down on a rising resistance movement.

“On the fateful day of September 21, 1972, Enrile had decided to ride in his security car, rather than his own, later escaping the fusillade of automatic-weapons fire directed at his car by ambushers. His good fortune was ascribed to God’s intervention. The deity in this case, however, was a two-personned God: Marcos and Enrile himself. The attempted assassination, according to the government, left it no choice but to declare martial law. The next day, September 22, Proclamation 1081 put into place martial law.” (A History of the Philippines, 2010: p. 225-226)

(Check out an archived video of Marcos declaring martial law here.)

Francia then describes what happened next: “Military units fanned out across the city to arrest political opponents, activists, and anyone suspected by the regime of subversion. The first politician picked up was Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.”

Eleven years later Aquino, a leader of the opposition movement, would be shot dead on the airport tarmac upon his return from exile in the US.

Today, Senator Aquino’s son, Noynoy, is now the president of the Republic. The question is whether or not his administration will support efforts to finally and conclusively recognize the human rights violations of tens of thousands.

The group SELDA has announced plans to hold an assembly in Manila the end of this month on the passage of the bill. Meanwhile, US-appointed lawyer Swift tells AP that his team is still going after $70 million in Marcos assets through New York and Singapore courts.

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