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Special Features | World | National

Swift asks US court: Find Imelda's 200 missing paintings
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines – While the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) is willing to give up on the Marcos wealth hunt, American human rights lawyer Robert Swift is still at it, this time chasing some 200 paintings allegedly stashed away by Imelda's former aide in New York.

Swift petitioned the Supreme Court of New York in December to locate the 200 paintings several weeks after Vilma Bautista, a former diplomat who served as Imelda's aide during the Marcos regime, was charged with secretly keeping and selling 'Le Bassin aux Nympheas,' one of French artist Claude Monet's 'Water Lilies' series, to a London gallery in 2010 for $32 million.

In a phone interview with News5, Swift said he asked the court to recover “Le Bassin” from Bautista and 199 other original paintings, including three by Pablo Picasso and one by Vincent Van Gogh and stop the sale, for the sake of the 10,000 martial law victims.

On Wednesday, the New York court will hear his petition and possibly right there and then decide if the victims deserve the paintings. “The court has the power to compel people to produce the paintings,” he said.

Imelda was said to have amassed all these paintings during her husband Ferdinand Marcos's 20-year despotic rule. Some of these had been stored in a townhouse located at No 13-15 East 6th Street in Manhattan, which used to house the Philippine Consulate and Mission to the United Nations, but Imelda converted it for her personal use, decorating it with some of the paintings.

A few days before and after the fall of the Marcos regime in February 1986, Bautista loaded the paintings into a huge van and subsequently disappeared into the night, said Swift, quoting sworn statements of witnesses.

Nobody knew anything about where Bautista had kept the paintings until she and her two nephews were arrested in November in New York for the 2010 sale of Monet's “Le Bassin.”

Other paintings Bautista, now 74, has been accused of secretly keeping are Monet's 'L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil,' Alfred Sisley's 'Langland Bay,' and Albert Marquet's 'Le Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said.' 

“Vetheuil” was offered for sale, first for $20 million, then for $55 million, according to the charge sheet lodged against Bautista.

According to Swift, Bautista has been "actively defending the criminal case against her.”

But why is Swift still hot on the Marcos wealth when the PCGG, formed by President Corazon Aquino through Presidential Order No 1, three days after Marcoses fled in 1986, is already cooling down?

He said he wanted to recover the paintings—and the proceeds if it is found that any of these had been sold--for Marcos regime's victims who won a $2-billion suit against the estate of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos in Hawaii in 1992, but were offered only P10 billion by President Aquino.

"I am intent on establishing the right of the (human rights victims) to recover the paintings and proceeds from their sale,” he said.

As against the $2-billion judgment, he said the P10-billion compensation package is inadequate to give justice to the victims.

Swift said the victims obtained the $2-billion judgment the hard way--nine years of arduous and hard-fought litigation in Hawaii where they had to prove every element of the heinous abuses committed against them.

Along with the late Filipino broadcaster-lawyer Jose Mari Velez, Swift filed a class suit on behalf of the Marcos victims in 1986 to recover the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth. For the PCGG as well as the two lawyers, it has been an uphill battle since because of the late strongman’s highly intricate and secretive network of accounts and the subsequent punishingly expensive international court battle to uncover them.

If Swift would have his way today, he said he would rather let PCCG perish for good. “My own view is that the PCGG has outlived its usefulness,” he said.

The PCGG in fact, he said, provided a major stumbling block to efforts to compensate the victims. It is, in fact, their rival to get compensation, he added.

"The PCGG's perpetual opposition to the recovery of Marcos assets by the HRV (human rights victims) has been a major obstacle in the HRV receiving compensation in a timely way,” he said.

In an earlier interview with noted New York-based journalist Ninotchka Rosca, Swift said he met with every post-Marcos Philippine president, except Benigno Aquino III, in connection with the cases he was litigating for the martial law victims.

But no one showed as much interest in justice for the victims. He sent Mr. Aquino a letter three years ago, but has not a received a reply yet, he said. At events marking the 27th anniversary of the People Power revolt, Mr. Aquino signed into law the landmark bill officially recognizing that HRVs were wronged under the Marcos regime, and the State will compensate them for that.

Swift told News5 that President Aquino has shown “no desire” to communicate with him and find a solution to work together in the recovery of Marcos wealth.

"There has been no change from the Arroyo administration to the Aquino administration in the PCGG's willingness to spend millions of dollars in trying to defeat the claims of the (victims),” he said.

The Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth allegedly came primarily from diverted foreign economic aid, US government military aid, including huge discretionary funds at Marcos disposal, as a 'reward' for sending some Filipino troops to Vietnam, and kickbacks from public works contracts over a 20-year rule.