How to Sue a Dictator

A brutal regime from across the Pacific Ocean ordered the assassination of two union activists in Seattle. Here’s the true story of how the killers—including the president of the Philippines—were made to answer for the murders.

Family and friends celebrate their legal victory over Marcos. From left, lawyer Michael Withey, friend of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes; Terri Mast, union organizer and Silme’s partner; Cindy Domingo, Silme’s sister and a co-founder and leader of the CJDV.

Photo by John Stamets

When Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, two young Filipino American labor activists, were shot in Seattle in June, 1981, at first the killings looked like gang reprisals for their efforts to reform the cannery workers’ union. Then the legal team working with the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes discovered that the murders were in fact political assassinations, a response to Domingo and Viernes’ leadership on union support for the democracy movement in the Philippines. The notorious and brutal dictator President Ferdinand Marcos had ordered the murders. And, worse, in plot twists worthy of a spy thriller, evidence emerged of involvement by U.S. intelligence.

The efforts of the CJDV and their legal team resulted in the convictions of the hitmen and the gang boss who hired them. But they didn’t stop there. In 1989, after nearly nine years of investigations, trials, and organizing, they won a federal civil suit establishing that Marcos had ordered the murders. A jury awarded $23.3 million against the Marcos estate to the families of Domingo and Viernes. It was the only time a foreign leader has been held legally responsible for the murder of U.S. citizens on United States soil.

Human rights lawyer Mike Withey was central to the Domingo and Viernes legal team from the very beginning. In Summary Execution, he describes how they managed to serve Marcos with a complaint and summons during his state visit to Washington, D.C.

The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., occupied almost an entire block of 14th Street, just a few blocks from the White House. On Sept. 17, 1982, at 11 o’clock in the morning, the national and international press crowded into a briefing room, awaiting the arrival of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and his wife, Imelda.

Outside, Father Bill Davis paced nervously up and down the street. Our committed investigator wore his priest’s collar tight around his neck, and he clutched a copy of the complaint and summons in the case called The Estates of Domingo and Viernes vs. The Republic of the Philippines, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. We also named Secretary of State George Schultz and General Alexander Haig as defendants in order to get injunctive relief against the U.S. to stop aiding Marcos agents.

The Marcoses had arrived in D.C. on Sept. 14 for an official, 13-day state visit. The night before, they’d been the guests of honor at a formal dinner at the White House hosted by the president and Nancy Reagan. There was also a private meeting between the presidents in the Oval Office, and a series of high-level meetings with Pentagon officials and Schultz.

Although the Marcos regime had gone to great lengths to project an image of political stability, including busing in and paying over a thousand pro-Marcos “supporters” to appear at rallies, the opposition was right on target with a major offensive leading up to his arrival.

A BBC documentary about the Philippines was shown at multiple public screenings throughout Washington, D.C., in the week before the state visit. The film contrasted the economic hardships of most Filipinos with the Marcoses’ lavish spending, and interviewed children who said they witnessed attacks by government soldiers on their parents. One boy said he watched soldiers behead his father, remembering, “They played with my father’s head.” Amnesty International also issued a report listing details of what it called widespread torture, political arrests, and murders by Philippine agents.

This did not make it easy for Reagan administration officials, who repeated the nostrum that good ties with Marcos were necessary to protect American military bases in the Philippines and our economic interests. Their message was not always well received. The week before Marcos arrived, eight U.S. congressmen called for cancellation of the state visit, citing the human rights violations. Days later, five U.S. senators released a letter to Reagan, urging him to use the Marcos visit “to enhance the cause of human rights.”

We got out our bulletproof vests and wore them at all times.

Now that the Philippine president was in the country, Congress Watch and The National Committee to Protest the Marcos State Visit, both organizations led by KDP [the Union of Democratic Filipinos, a socialist group based in the U.S.] activists, had brought national attention on Marcos’ deplorable human rights record and his role in his military agents’ infiltration of the Marcos opposition. Rallies and demonstrations against the regime filled the local news broadcasts, and the national press corps was covering both the visit and the counter-demonstrations carefully.

Throughout the visit, the KDP contingent in D.C. was under surveillance by Marcos agents. At every picket line, demonstration, rally, and meeting, we saw Filipino bodybuilder types, almost always in pairs, with identical dark pants and white shirts open at the collar—all the trappings of Marcos agents. They stood aside, took pictures, and counted us. They took literature from our tables and threw it away.

“Turn Anguish to Anger” march, a few days after the murders, demands justice for Domingo and Viernes. Photo by John Stamets.

More sinister, though, was the continued presence of the bodybuilders after the meetings broke up for the evening. They followed us to the house in suburban Maryland where many of us were staying. We decided to travel in groups of at least three and deployed our own security teams to anticipate and deter any problems. We got out our bulletproof vests and wore them at all times. We took photographs of all of the Marcos agents to use as exhibits in our civil lawsuit. There were many tense moments when the agents saw us taking pictures and approached us menacingly.

In the middle of this, our lawsuit was ready to file. But first, we needed to personally serve Marcos with a copy of the complaint. The summons would hail Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos into federal court in the Western District of Washington (Seattle) to answer for the murders of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, and the conspiracy to deprive the anti-Marcos movement in the U.S. of their constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and association.

As the Marcos entourage of eight black Lincoln Town cars approached, Father Bill slipped into a side entrance of the Press Club. He stood next to a large tree in the hallway leading to where the press conference was being held, hoping this was the path the Philippine delegation would take. It seemed like a long shot, but it was our best shot. If we couldn’t get service of process on him, Marcos could legally ignore our lawsuit.

I was on the other side of the city that morning with Cindy [Cindy Domingo, Silme’s sister, a leader of the CJDV], Rene, and other KDP activists getting ready for our own press conference. Back in Seattle, the rest of the legal team huddled around a table in John Caughlan’s house, awaiting word from Father Bill to file the lawsuit as soon as Marcos was served. If he was served.

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We’d planned simultaneous press events in D.C., New York, the Bay Area, and Seattle. We had worked carefully on the statements, placing our lawsuit within the broader context of the Reagan administration’s backing of a notoriously repressive and dictatorial regime. We made the case that when our country allies itself with repressive dictators like Marcos, we pay the price here.

We alleged in the lawsuit that Gene’s meeting with Felixberto Olalia [of KMU, Kilusang Mayo Uno, a labor center in the Philippines] had been monitored by Marcos agents, as was the ILWU resolution debate in Hawai‘i [the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s resolution to investigate civil liberties in the Philippines was written and instigated by Domingo and Viernes]. We noted that Marcos had arrested the top leadership of the KMU, including Olalia, and charged them with subversion shortly before he left for the U.S. We opined that Marcos didn’t want the KMU to disrupt the country while he was away, and hoped Olalia’s arrest underscored just how dangerous Marcos considered the KMU and its leadership, and why Gene and Silme’s work with the KMU came to his attention and concern.

We labored under the somewhat grandiose notion that our lawsuit would color the entire Marcos state visit and could be the chief weapon to expose the regime and change public opinion. We wanted the lawsuit to be the J’Accuse! of our movement, imagining an impact similar to what Emile Zola had with his famous 1898 confrontation of the president of the French Republic for the infamous Dreyfuss Affair.

What actually happened was that the Philippines’ dismal human rights record created an atmosphere of controversy from the very start of the visit. Our lawsuit used the public characterization of the regime to validate its allegations, rather than the other way around.

I was at the house in Maryland about half an hour after the Marcos press conference was scheduled to start when the phone rang.

“Mike? Bill Davis here.” His voice seemed cheery and clear.

“What’s the good word, Father Bill?”

“Marcos pulls almost abreast of me, looks over, and actually says, ‘Good morning, father.’ Can you believe it? I couldn’t."

“I was in the hallway like we planned, and all of a sudden there he was, walking down the hall with three aides, talking and paying no attention to an elderly Catholic priest huddled in the vestibule. Imelda was way behind him, but you said I only needed to serve the president, so I ignored her.”

“And?” I couldn’t cage my curiosity.

“Marcos pulls almost abreast of me, looks over, and actually says, ‘Good morning, father.’ Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I took out the summons and complaint from under my priest’s robe and told him I had something he would like to read. I handed him the documents, and he took them, almost instinctively, without looking, and handed them to his aide.”

“You got him served, Bill! You got him served!” I was shouting into the phone.

“I left before anyone bothered to read what it was,” Bill finished.

“That is so great. Thanks so much. We’ll need an affidavit from you describing exactly what you did in case Marcos challenges service of process. Way to go, Bill.”

Bill later told me that serving Marcos was one of the highlights of his life. Before we were done, he would also serve Haig and Schultz—a piece of cake after getting to the president of a foreign country.

Our simultaneous press conferences around the country went off without a hitch. The Seattle press covered the filing of the lawsuit, but we were less than thrilled by the reception from the national press. Plenty of reporters attended our event, but most of them took our statements and copies of the lawsuit, created a file, and waited for further developments. The Bay Area conference went well, but few showed up in New York.

The lawsuit was filed in Seattle less than an hour after Marcos was served. Our luck that day held, and our case was assigned to Judge Donald S. Voorhees, the jurist we’d hoped for. I never asked Jim how he had managed to accomplish that, and was content with his explanation that it was “just shit luck.”

Excerpt of Summary Execution: The Seattle Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes published by permission of the author and WildBlue Press. Copyright 2018, Michael Withey

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