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Marcos seeks elusive haven as probers close in

As the search for a safe haven for deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos continues, US and Philippine investigators are closing in on the now-legendary Marcos fortune. But despite an elaborate paper trail contained in thousands of pages of Marcos family documents now in the hands investigators, lawyers say stripping Mr. Marcos of what are alleged to be billions of dollars' worth of ill-gotten assets will present a major legal challenge. If Marcos succeeds in finding asylum outside the US, he could put himself -- if not his property holdings, which are said to be extensive -- out of legal reach altogether.

The latest plan to find a safe haven outside the United States fell through Friday when Panamanian authorities, in a last-minute change of heart, refused permission to Marcos and an entourage of 40 to take up residence on the tiny Pacific resort island of Contadora. But a State Department spokesman said Friday that the US was still negotiating with ``several countries'' to which Marcos has expressed interest in going.

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So far, at least five countries have declined to admit the former Philippine president.

Marcos has asked for US help in finding another home because of his growing concern about being summoned before US courts or congressional committees in connection with allegations of widespread Marcos family graft.

This week US and Philippine investigators will continue combing through more than 2,000 pages of personal records that link the Marcos family to a global network of financial and real estate holdings estimated to be worth at least $5 billion -- roughly a quarter of the total external debt of the Philippines.

The documents, described by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D), chairman of a House subcommittee investigating the Marcos holdings, as an ``encyclopedia of corruption,'' were taken to Honolulu by Marcos when he fled the Philippines last month. According to investigators, the Marcos fortune was obtained through the misappropriation of Philippine government funds and through kickbacks and bribes paid by corporations for the chance to do business in the Philippines.

Legal experts say there is no chance that Marcos would be extradited from the US to the Philippines to stand trial on any charge. But US laws may make it possible for Marcos to be tried in US courts for private acts or business dealings, and possibly for human rights violations committed during his 20-year rule as president of the Philippines.

So far, civil suits have been filed against the former Philippine president in New York, New Jersey, and Texas -- the first of an expected string of cases involving real estate said to be owned by the Marcos family. In addition, the Central Bank of the Philippines has filed suit in Hawaii to recover several million dollars' worth of Philippine currency taken there by Marcos when he fled.

Lawyers prosecuting the first three cases have asked the courts to freeze Marcos's assets pending a determination of the true ownership of various properties in question. If Marcos is found to be the owner, and if Philippine courts determine that purchase was made with unlawfully appropriated funds, then Marcos's assets could be ``attached'' and returned to the new Philippine government.

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``Marcos can go anywhere he wants, but he can't take the Crown Building with him,'' says David Lerner of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represent the Aquino government. ``In terms of lawsuits that have been filed for now, [Marcos leaving the country] is not an issue.'' The Crown Building is one of four prime Manhattan properties the Aquino government lawyers contend are owned by the Marcos family.

But if Marcos does leave the US, investigators would face these problems: Neither Congress nor a federal grand jury could subpoena the former Philippine president without a specific extradition agreement with the new country of [el13l]asylum. This could put Marcos out of reach if, for example, the US decides to prosecute him for alleged misuse of US foreign aid funds.

Where an extradition treaty does exist, says Harvard law school Prof. Abram Chayes, ``the only question would be whether a crime committed in the Philippines, but with respect to US funds, would be covered.''

One top Marcos aide now living in the US, former Philippine chief of staff Fabian C. Ver, was forced to testify last week before a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., in connection with charges of payoffs by US defense contractors to Philippine military officials.

In any criminal case (as opposed to a civil suit) Marcos could enjoy immunity from prosecution -- as has Robert Vesco, the New Jersey financier who evaded trial on charges of looting several mutual funds by fleeing to Costa Rica.

In addition, international law experts say the Philippine government could have much more difficulty gaining access to Marcos assets in third countries, where local statutes could make access to courts far more difficult than in the US.

However, in a move that should help a Philippine commission assigned to recover Marcos assets, Swiss officials on Friday agreed to restrict the transfer of Marcos family bank deposits believed worth tens of millions of dollars.

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