In July 1974, two Philippines law enforcement officials arrested Emmanuel Umali. The men told Umali that he had committed “subversive acts” against the government.
President Ferdinand Marcos had declared martial law in the country in 1972, and was cracking down on suspected dissidents. In his college days, at the University of the Philippines a few years before, Umali had demonstrated against the government alongside radical groups. But he had not been that politically active since. He figured the officials had mistaken him for somebody else.
They tortured him–beat him with fists, pistol-whipped him, electrocuted his genitals. He confessed to the charges, he says, to make them stop. The officials locked Umali in a detention camp for the next two years. They released him only after he convinced them that he had been rehabilitated.
More than a decade later, after Marcos had left the country in exile, Umali joined the class-action lawsuit demanding that the dictator’s estate pay restitution to the regime’s victims of human rights abuses.
Umali was one of the victims who testified in federal court in Hawaii, the state of Marcos’ post-exile residence. And in 1995, the judge ruled that Marcos’ estate must pay the victims $1.9 billion. In the years since, the 10,000 or so victims involved in the case have struggled to get even a fraction of that judgement.
As we reported in a news short last month, the fight over the dictator’s money stash has centered in New York recently. In November, a former official of the Marcos regime was arrested in Manhattan trying to sell a Monet painting that the dictator had purchased decades ago. On top of that, the Philippines government and the class of human rights victims have jostled for years over who should get the $35 million from Marcos’ old Merrill Lynch account. That fight continues.
But for a handful of victims like Umali, the fight is already over. And they lost.
Umali and around two dozen other victims may never touch any of that potential $10 million or $35 million. The reason is painfully simple: they had the wrong lawyer.
In the wake of Marcos’ 1986 exile, multiple class action groups formed to sue him. Robert Swift, who had previously won judgement for Holocaust survivors, represented several thousand victims. Melvin Belli, the celebrity lawyer whose clientele included Jack Ruby, the Rolling Stones, and Muhammad Ali, represented 21 victims, including Umali. Another lawyer represented a few more victims.
The cases consolidated in 1992. When the court ruled against Marcos, all the victims were winners. Umali and the 20 others in his class each won a $250,000 compensatory judgment.
But then the fate of the victims diverged. There was no windfall following the judgement. Instead, there was a long road of legal battles before the plaintiffs could collect any money. Marcos’ estate was not about to hand over the cash willingly.
Swift would go on to make claims on Marcos’ assets for his clients. In 2011, Swift’s clients got their first check, for $1,000. In July, an art collector who had purchased Marcos’ Monet painting agreed to give Swift’s class $10 million to avoid a legal dispute.
Belli, however, died in 1996. The attorney who took over the case, Randy Scarlett, did not make any claims and soon stopped representing the 21 victims. In 2012, Scarlett sent them an email noting that “our representation ended years ago, following the Judgments obtained.”
“We have not received anything,” Umali tells the Village Voice, “not even a single cent.”
He recalls that his group of plaintiffs was the first class to file legal action against Marcos. He recently suffered a stroke, he adds, and any money would be a big help to pay down his medical costs.
Umali’s set of victims has reached out to Swift, writing a letter to “request to be included in any future distribution/award to the class action.”
But Swift explains that his hands are tied–that he can only look out for his clients, who have barely scratched the judgement themselves. He has told Umali’s group that it is too late for them to join his class.
“There’s nothing I can do for them,” Swift says.