By CHRIS MARSHALL
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A former counterintelligence officer in the Philippines owes $4.2 million for the political torture and killing of a publicist, as the result of a U.S. Federal Court ruling this week. The ex-officer served time in a U.S. prison before he was extradited to the Phillipines where the case against him was later dismissed.
"It is important to deter extrajudicial killings of publicists, especially when the victims include four United States citizens," wrote U.S. District Judge William Alsup. "Despite 'silencing' Salvador Dacer in such a gruesome manner, Michael Aquino has apparently escaped relatively unscathed."
The murder of publicist Salvador "Bubby" Dacer stemmed from his lobbying against appointment of Panfilo Lacson to the head the Philippine National Police, the court found. Dacer was also accused of working to have then-President Joseph Estrada impeached.
Michael Ray Aquino, the deputy director of the police force's intelligence group, received the orders to silence Dacer, according to the ruling. It does not say who gave the orders.
In November 2000, agents acting under Aquino's instructions abducted, interrogated and strangled Dacer with a wire. They burned the publicist's body in a dry creek where his charred remains were found later, according to Alsup's findings.
Aquino then fled the Philippines, allegedly under the advice of Lacson.
After Estrada resigned, new President Gloria Arroyo directed her justice department to investigate Dacer's abduction and murder.
Dacer's family said a Philippine court indicted Aquino as the "coordinator" who "manage[d] the entire operation via cellphone."
Aquino was later arrested in the United States for illegal possession of classified documents and sentenced to 76 months in prison.
The civil lawsuit in San Francisco came after Aquino's extradition to the Philippines ended with dismissal of the murder charges "on technicalities."
Aquino had initially proceeded pro se in the case, moving to dismiss the claims against him, filing an answer that denied the allegations, and moving for summary judgment.
He ceased participating in the action, however, after those motions were denied in 2011. His whereabouts are presently unknown, Judge Alsup said.
Aquino was the last defendant standing after Alsup dismissed most of the other accused parties, including Estrada and Lacson, in 2012.
With the court's leave the plaintiffs moved for default judgment last year in lieu of a trial.
Alsup granted default judgment on Nov. 8, serving the order to the detention center in the Philippines from which Aquino previously filed documents in the case.
Aquino had been ordered to file a statement by Jan. 17 showing why default judgment should not be entered against him, declaring whether he intended to defend himself in the case and explaining why he had not appeared since 2011. Aquino did not respond, according to the ruling.
The judge found that "Aquino played a significant role in authorizing, instructing and coordinating the effort to kill Salvador Dacer."
"In November 2000, Salvador Dacer was summoned to the Presidential residence and accused of working to have then-President Estrada impeached. Salvador Dacer was berated and left the President's home in fear of his life," said the judge in his findings.
A few days later, Dacer was abducted, strangled and burned in a dry creek. He was blindfolded, hogtied, and gagged. His bone fragments and dentures were found, eventually. He was sixty-six years old.
"Michael Aquino's brutal actions took the life of a prominent and influential publicist, a friend and mentor to the Filipino community, and a father to four now-orphaned daughters. The cruel manner in which defendant orchestrated the abduction, torture, and killing of Salvador Dacer is chilling," said the judge.
"These actions should not go unnoticed," he wrote. "Indeed, to some extent, they have not."
The Philippine government later indicted Aquino for the 'double murder' of Salvador Dacer and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito. The action, however, was dismissed on `technicalities,' according to plaintiffs. He is no longer in the custody of the Phillipine government. His whereabouts are unknown.
Though the plaintiffs asked the court for $60 million, Alsup found the number to be excessive and overly reliant on insufficient evidence.
The court's award of $4.2 million to Dacer's four daughters includes more than $3.3 million in punitive damages.
The plaintiffs are Carina Dacer, Sabina Dacer-Reyes, Amparo Dacer-Henson and Emily Dacer-Hungerford. They are represented by Errol Javier Zshornack from Antero & Tormey LLP in San Francisco.
Zshornack did not immediately reply to an after-hours request for comment.