HONOLULU — A federal judge Friday ordered the U.S. Customs Service to return to deposed Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos millions of dollars in money, jewelry and other belongings his party carried to exile in Hawaii.
U.S. District Judge Harold Fong said the Customs Service had no authority to hold the goods it seized after Marcos fled the Philippines on Feb. 26. The property was not confiscated in connection with any investigation into potential violation of U.S. law, he said.
The new Philippine government of Corazon Aquino contends that the money and property were stolen. In March, it released a Customs inventory of $7.7 million in goods it said accompanied Marcos, his wife, Imelda, and an 89-member entourage when they left the Philippines at the end of Marcos' 20-year rule.
The inventory included designer bags stuffed with jewelry, one piece valued at $1.5 million, as well as 22 cardboard boxes stuffed with $1.2 million in Philippine pesos.
Marcos Reported Happy
An aide to Marcos said the former president is happy with the ruling. "He said, 'I told you about American justice, that we have always believed in this,' " Arturo Aruiza said.
Marcos has said the Customs seizure left his family virtually penniless and dependent on supporters for subsistence.
Judge Fong said Customs was not required to determine legal title to the property before returning it to Marcos.
"It is apparent from the legislative history . . . as well as from the regulations, that Customs has never required evidence of ownership for any other purpose than to determine who shall be liable for duty," Fong said.
"This court concludes Customs has no statutory duty or right to detain goods until such time as an importer proves legal ownership of the goods. Nor does it require such proof of ownership as a matter of practice."
As matters stood, the judge said, Marcos had no adequate legal recourse to the actions of the Customs Service.
The judge said the government of the Philippines made a claim for the goods, but he noted that there was no agreement or executive order from President Reagan requiring Customs to detain the property.
"Unfortunately, the executive branch has issued mixed signals on this matter," Fong said.
To Assess Duties
Fong ordered the Customs Service to assess duties on the goods and release the merchandise on payment. The judge said he had "grave reservations" about the conduct of Customs in the case.
"In particular, this court suspects that certain employees representing Customs have been less than candid with the court," Fong said.
Aruiza said Marcos "heard about it a few minutes ago and he's indeed very happy. Watching him, I think that the lawyer in him . . . is very cautious about all these things. He would first want to see the ruling.