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Philippine court scraps stock for Aquino hacienda

By OLIVER TEVES Associated Press MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday scrapped a stock distribution plan for workers on a sugar estate owned by the president's relatives. The tribunal ordered the Department of Agrarian Reform to conduct a referendum among the 6,296 farm workers for them to choose either land parcels or stock in the operator of the 11,115-acre (4,500-hectare) sugar cane plantation. The court decision upholds a 2005 government decision that was seen as a political move against the Aquino family for joining calls for the ouster of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for alleged corruption. President Benigno Aquino III had divested his shares in Hacienda Luisita Inc. last year, his spokesman spokesman Edwin Lacierda said. He declined to comment on the ruling before reading it. Aquino has said he wanted the court to decide the issue since he was personally connected to it. The company welcomed the decision, its spokesman, Tony Ligon, told ABS-CBN television. "We uphold the rule of law," he said. "We will look at the decision and if we have to clarify something, we will do so." He said the company expects to receive "just compensation" for parcels of land that are to be distributed. No schedule was set for compliance with Tuesday's court ruling, but the agrarian reform department must submit a "compliance report" after six months. The hacienda was exempted from land distribution under the agrarian reform law signed by Aquino's mother, who was president from 1986 to 1992 following the downfall of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino, who was elected last year, has been criticized by farmers' groups for not pushing relatives in his mother's Cojuangco clan to give up the estate and distribute the land to farmers who have worked on the plantation since the 1950s.

In 2005, the government's agrarian reform council decided the stock distribution scheme should be terminated because it allegedly did not improve the lives of plantation workers. Then-Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman denied that scrapping the stock option was politically motivated. Pangandaman said that under the scheme, the living condition of the farmers "deteriorated through the years, which is contrary to the vision of (the agrarian reform law)." Left-wing Rep. Rafael Mariano, who has called for the distribution of all the hacienda lands, denounced the Supreme Court's "pro-landlord" decision, saying it was "deceitful and unacceptable." He said in a statement that the decision will allow the Cojuangcos "to continue controlling the use, disposition and benefit from the fruits of the land."