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Rights victims in limbo

/ 11:40 PM July 23, 2013

Last February, to much fanfare on the part of Congress and Malacañang, President Aquino signed into law a bill authorizing compensation of P10 billion (about $230 million) to victims of human-rights abuses by the Marcos dictatorship. For the claimants, it was a case of better late than never—the fruit of 26 years of unrelenting, often lonely, struggle not only to get the Philippine government to recognize their status as primary victims of state-sponsored violence under martial law, but also, and more importantly, to redress that injustice by way of an official government act that finally enforces some measure of restitution and punishment against the Marcoses.

Nearly six months later, not one of the claimants has received his or her share of that compensation, because Malacañang has yet to appoint the members of the board that would administer the fund. Yet again, the rights victims are being made to wait—their claims stuck in bureaucratic limbo even as their ranks continue to dwindle due to old age and the ravages of the violence they endured long ago.

And now, the government seems to want to add cruelty to its neglect of the rights victims: The Presidential Commission on Good Government is opposing the $10-million settlement that the victims’ lawyers have reportedly forged with the unnamed buyer of a valuable Claude Monet painting believed to be part of the ill-gotten wealth of Imelda Marcos, former first lady and now Ilocos Norte representative.


The well-known artwork by the French Impressionist painter, titled “Le Bassin aux Nympheas” (Water Lily Pond, 1899), was sold to the buyer in 2010 by Vilma Bautista, Imelda Marcos’ former social secretary and confidante, for $32 million. The New York-based Bautista was arrested in 2012 for attempting to sell three more Impressionist artworks from the Marcos hoard. The buyer of the Monet, who was said to have bought the painting in good faith, didn’t want to be dragged into the highly publicized case of Bautista—whose trial for art theft and tax fraud is set to start on Oct. 7 in New York—and thus agreed to enter into a settlement with the rights victims over the painting’s ownership for $10 million.

The settlement is the handiwork of Robert Swift, the same US-based lawyer who won a $2-billion award in a class action suit against the Marcos estate in 1995 on behalf of 9,539 victims of martial-law abuses. If the agreement with the Monet buyer is successfully implemented, the remaining claimants, now down to 7,500, may get another $1,000 in compensation on top of the P43,000 (the equivalent of $1,000) each of them received in 2011 under a $10-million initial settlement of the $2-billion judgment.

Two thousand dollars, or about P86,000. Is that sufficient to compensate for the rape, torture, mutilation and other horrific barbarities inflicted on thousands of men and women, among them the flower of the country’s youth, by agents and soldiers of the Marcos dictatorship? Is that recompense enough for families wracked by anguish over a parent, spouse, or child gone missing or driven into hiding in the face of government harassment, or—everyone’s nightmare in that benighted era—a loved one’s mangled body?

When President Aquino signed the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013 during the Edsa rites last February, it was hailed as a landmark measure that recognized the heroism of those who fought and suffered under martial law. But it is a recognition that the government has been unable to deliver so far. One would think, then, that it would welcome the justness of another arrangement—such as the $10-million Monet settlement—that could take up the slack and begin compensating the victims.

But the PCGG stands in the way, insisting that the government, not the rights victims, owns the Monet painting, and thus they have no right to its proceeds—a perfectly valid legal argument, and also a callous, insensitive one. This saga of injustice has lasted nearly three decades. Whatever funds are extracted from the Marcos loot, and in whatever way—whether by formal budget allocation or through the disposal of the ill-gotten hoard—these victims deserve to finally get their due.

Until they are afforded such closure, their ordeal continues—and this country’s as well, with its collective inability, or plain unwillingness, to come to terms with its dark past.

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