By Anthony Esguerra

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Victims of human rights atrocities during former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ regime are attempting to block the looming presidential candidacy of his son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., by seeking his disqualification in the polls set for May.

The younger Marcos, who is widely known as “Bongbong” and is leading early poll surveys, is running on a ticket with President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, who seeks to become vice president.

Cases against Marcos filed on behalf of the victims are piling up at the Commission on Elections, with the seventh, and most recent, filed in late November. The petitions ask the body to either cancel Marcos’ certificate of candidacy or to disqualify him due to a criminal conviction in 1997 over his failure to file income tax returns decades ago.

Human rights organizations formed to assist political prisoners and victims during the elder Marcos’ rule led the filing of the first petition November 2. Other groups followed suit. Although the petitions vary in legal tactics, the end goal is to prevent the younger Marcos from seeking the presidency.

Thousands were killed, tortured, or disappeared during the elder Marcos’ rule in the 1980s while his family amassed a personal fortune in the billions of dollars. In 1995, a U.S. jury in Hawaii ruled in favor of human rights victims and deemed Marcos responsible for human rights violations in the Philippines.

Fides Lim, spokesperson of Kapatid - Families and Friends of Political Prisoners, one of the petitioners, said Marcos “does not deserve a single minute in public office.”

“[We] appeal to the COMELEC [the elections commission] to cancel, deny that certificate of candidacy filed by Bongbong because it is built on lies. It’s a lie,” Lim told VOA.

“He’s a liar. That’s it. He’s a convicted criminal. It’s an open-and-shut case. The COMELEC should just do its mandated duty by the constitution and enforce the law period,” she said.

Under Philippine election law, anyone sentenced for a crime involving moral turpitude is disqualified from seeking public office. The petitioners argue that failing to pay income taxes is a crime of moral turpitude.

Other petitions lodged with the commission seek Marcos’ disqualification based on the Philippine tax code that prohibits any official convicted of tax fraud from holding public office. The late dictator himself decreed the law when he had absolute power in the country and it is still being enforced today.

The Marcos camp did not respond to VOA’s request for comment, but spokesperson Victor Rodriguez has repeatedly called the petitions “nuisance.”

“We respect the right of every disillusioned group to take whatever legal action they think would best serve their own agenda, as we also expect them to respect our right to be heard,” Rodriguez said in a statement last month.

In November, the dean of the University of Santo Tomas law school said the first petition against Marcos “is bound to collapse once evaluated by the Comelec.”

“It’s ad hominem, or an attack against the character of the respondent, that may weaken the petitioners’ position. It is the law, always, that matters,” said the dean, lawyer Nilo Divina.

Marcos is leading in the early presidential survey at 53%, according to the most recent poll, while opposition Vice President Leni Robredo is the distant second at 20%. Marcos lost to Robredo in the vice presidential race in 2016.

The petitioners denied accusations that they filed the disqualification cases because they were threatened by Marcos’ poll numbers.

“We are doing this, in particular, to show the disparity of the double standard of justice, the selective application of the law when it comes to the very powerful like the Marcos family,” Lim said.

Marcos successfully ran in the elections as representative, governor, senator, and vice president in 2016 without being challenged. The petitioners say the COMELEC should have done its job before and disqualified Marcos the first time he sought public office after his conviction.

“What is on trial here? It’s not only Bongbong Marcos himself, it’s the COMELEC and our own government institutions to do the right thing, to do their job,” Lim added.

Tax conviction

It was retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who first outlined why Marcos should be disqualified in a series of columns published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

“We are just following the law. They’re afraid of the law. If he’s not qualified, he shouldn’t be allowed to run. And he knows that he’s not qualified because he was convicted,” Carpio told VOA.

The disqualification cases stem from a 1997 conviction of Marcos over his failure to pay income taxes from 1982-84, when he served as vice governor and later governor of the province of of Ilocos Norte, the family’s bailiwick.

Marcos appealed the conviction, and the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision but removed the seven-year imprisonment penalty in 1997. The conviction became final when he withdrew his appeal from the Supreme Court in 2001.

Carpio said Marcos withdrew his appeal knowing that the higher court could correct the “mistake” of the lower court and reimpose the penalty of imprisonment.

“You don’t want to have a president who is an ex-convict because the president must have good moral character. In other words, he must not be afflicted with moral turpitude because our experience is that all of those presidents of ours who lied, who stole, who killed caused irreparable damage to the nation,” he said.

Grand scheme

Another petitioner, Bonifacio Ilagan, a former student leader who was arrested and tortured for protesting human rights violations during the Marcos regime, said the Marcos family’s “grand scheme” to return to power must be stopped.

“We realized that the return of the Marcoses to Malacañang was really part of the grand scheme of the Marcoses to return to power,” Ilagan said. Malacañang is the name of the presidential palace in Manila.

The Marcos family has been enjoying an image rehabilitation, thanks in part to Duterte and to a massive effort to recast history on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The COMELEC is expected to render a decision early this year.

The petitioners acknowledge the possibility that they might lose and fail to stop Marcos from running, owing to the fact that many of the commissioners in the COMELEC or the justices in the Supreme Court were appointed by Duterte.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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