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The Philippines

Court orders arrest of Imelda Marcos, widow of Philippine dictator, for corruption

  • The former first lady and incumbent lawmaker was found guilty of seven counts of graft for allegedly maintaining Swiss accounts as a cabinet member
  • She has been ordered to serve six to 11 years in jail for each count in a decision that comes nearly three decades after the case was first filed
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:06pm

The Philippines’ anti-corruption court ordered the arrest of former first lady Imelda Marcos on Friday after finding her guilty of seven counts of graft during the two-decade rule of her husband and late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

Imelda, 89, a sitting three-term congresswoman who is known for her huge collection of shoes, jewellery and artwork, once wielded immense power in the Southeast Asian nation before her family was toppled in an army-backed popular uprising in 1986.

Bank documents left behind in the couple’s haste to flee the presidential palace were used to build the case against Imelda, which has been ongoing since 1991. The documents showed that the couple had created supposed charitable foundations in Liechtenstein and elsewhere, which they then used to open secret bank accounts in Switzerland.

Headway only began to be made in the case when the Swiss Federal Court ruled in 1997 “that the majority of the Marcos foundation assets were of criminal origin”.

In 2003, the Swiss court ordered the money to be returned to the Philippine government, after the Philippine Supreme Court rendered a decision that Ferdinand and Imelda’s joint lawful income between 1965 to 1986 totalled just USD$304,000 and anything beyond that had been stolen.

By the time of the order, US$683 million was sitting in the couple’s Swiss accounts, up from an initial US$356 million.

However, according to the Presidential Commission on Good Government, set up to recover ill-gotten wealth accumulated during the Marcos regime, the pair stashed at least US$10 billion overseas while in power.

Why Marcos the dictator still inspires pride in the Philippines

The guilty verdict against Imelda is the first to hold her criminally liable for hiding stolen wealth in Switzerland using shell foundations.

The Sandiganbayan anti-corruption court has ordered her to serve six to 11 years in jail for each of the seven counts of graft and barred her from ever running for office again. She was charged for making seven bank transfers totalling US$200 million to Swiss foundations during her term as Manila governor.

But under the rules of the court, the former first lady has 15 days from promulgation of the ruling to file an appeal, and the court has 30 days within which to decide on it. Marcos may also go straight to Supreme Court to seek relief - and while the case is on appeal, she can run for office and possibly post bail.

If we fight dictators, we might win. If we don’t, we always lose
Ruben Carranza, former Presidential Commission on Good Government commissioner

Congressman Tom Villarin of the opposition Akbayan Party said Marcos “can’t invoke her age nor humanitarian grounds for her not to serve the sentence. She should be arrested and photos of her being brought to justice made public. As a sitting member of the House of Representatives and now running for governor in Ilocos Norte, she can’t have the best of all worlds.”

Former Philippine Human Rights Commission chair Loretta Ann Rosales, who was raped and tortured by soldiers of the Marcos regime, told ABS-CBN Network that she was “jumping up and down in joy in disbelief” at the guilty verdict.

Lawyer Ruben Carranza, meanwhile, was more guarded. The former commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government said the verdict could be reversed by a Supreme Court that is mostly composed of judges appointed by the Philippines’ “Marcos-idolising” President Rodrigo Duterte. The court has form – having reversed Imelda’s 1993 graft conviction in 1998, he said.

But Carranza, who now works for the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York, said that “even under authoritarian rulers – a Marcos, Duterte, (Donald) Trump or (Jair) Bolsonaro – there can be independent, self-respecting judges. If we fight dictators, we might win. If we don’t, we always lose.”

A pardon will only remove punishment, not guilt
Ruben Carranza, former Presidential Commission on Good Government commissioner

President Duterte “can pardon Imelda. But that means she accepts her guilt and returns the rest of the money – since a pardon will only remove punishment, not guilt,” he said.

Imelda has registered as a candidate next May to succeed her daughter, Imee Marcos, 62, as governor of Ilocos Norte, the stronghold of the still powerful Marcos family.

Imee, who swatted away queries by saying she had yet to receive “details” of the verdict, is running for the Philippines senate in 2019.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines for two decades, placing the country under martial law in 1972, during which time thousands of opponents were jailed, killed or disappeared.

He died in self-imposed exile in Hawaii in 1989.

Duterte: If I step down, bring back Marcos to run Philippines

President Duterte enjoys close ties with the Marcos family and has called the late strongman his role model.

He allowed Marcos’ embalmed body to be buried at a special heroes’ cemetery in 2016, and is often accompanied at official events by Imee.

Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said: “The president has repeatedly said we respect the rule of law. We will not interfere with the judiciary. And consistent with that, any violator of the law will be prosecuted fully until the end.”

Panelo was Imelda’s lawyer in a previous corruption case and ran for senator under her political banner.

Additional reporting by Reuters