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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Other People's Money
A conspiracy case in Hong Kong involves Marcos bank accounts
By ALEJANDRO REYES

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On July 27, Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) charged four people for allegedly conspiring to bribe employees of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. in return for help accessing certain HSBC bank accounts. Prosecutor Kevin Zervos said that the four defendants had signed a deal in December 1999 with Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos's widow Imelda to withdraw more than $2.6 billion of Marcos money deposited in Hong Kong in HSBC and the Bank of China. She promised to give the bounty hunters a 35% cut of whatever they could retrieve. No withdrawal was made and the ICAC arrested the four in March. They have been freed on bail.

In the Philippines, human rights lawyer Rod Domingo accused Imelda Marcos of trying to get around a global freeze order on her family's deposits. "Her hand has been caught dipping into the cookie jar," he said. "It looks like the evidence [in the case] is air-tight." The ICAC is not accusing Marcos of any involvement in the alleged bribery. For her part, the former jet-setting First Lady wasn't talking. But her lawyer Rafael Ramos confirmed that his client had authorized businesswoman Chuk Oi-fong, one of the Hong Kong defendants, to act on her behalf. He said in a statement that Marcos "only entertained the proposal in her ardent desire to find sources to fund the human rights settlement and in accordance with the orders of the court." In a 1998 settlement with more than 9,000 human-rights victims of the deposed dictator's regime who filed a class-action lawsuit against his estate, a U.S. district court in Hawaii ordered the Marcos family to pay $150 million to the claimants. Ramos said that he ended the agreement with Chuk soon after she had been authorized by Imelda to act on her behalf. The reason: "There was some misinformation about the transaction proposed."

Marcos, meanwhile, remains barred from traveling abroad, though she was permitted to visit the U.S. late last year for eye treatment. It was in fact when she was in New York that Chuk approached her. Some Marcos critics say that the Hong Kong case proves that Manila has achieved little in its 14-year quest to recover the family's hidden wealth. They have called on Hong Kong banks to reveal the extent of the Marcoses' deposits in the city. For years, the Philippine government has been working to retrieve about $630 million in Marcos deposits in Switzerland which in 1997 the Swiss Supreme Court finally ruled had been "criminally acquired."

According to Jovito Salonga, who served as the first head of the commission assigned to oversee the retrieval effort, as of May 2000, the government had recovered almost $2 billion. In a just-published book, Salonga alleges that even before taking office in 1998, President Joseph Estrada "had been peddling the myth" that nothing has been recovered "in the desire to convince the nation that it would be better to reach a compromise agreement with the Marcoses than incur more litigation expenses." Just how much more wealth might the government claim? "We practically own everything in the Philippines," Imelda famously asserted in 1998, saying that the Marcos fortune held by cronies she referred to as "trustees" amounted to about 500 billion pesos — or $11 billion.

With reporting by Antonio Lopez/Manila and Yulanda Chung/Hong Kong


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