The Philippine Supreme Court has ordered vast sugarcane plantation lands owned by relatives of the president to be distributed to thousands of farmers under a government land reform program.
The high court _ which has recently been at odds with President Benigno Aquino III _ said the 11,115-acre (4,500-hectare) Hacienda Luisita in northern Tarlac province should be turned over to 6,296 farm workers. The ruling, which was made public Thursday, changes a decision last July that gave the workers the option of getting shares of stock in a corporation that runs the plantation instead of land.
Left-wing peasant groups have alleged the stock-option scheme was conceived so the sprawling plantation owned by the president's relatives could evade the land reform program, which has been hampered for decades by opposition from influential landlords and a lack of government funds to buy the land from owners.
The court said the government's land reform policy aims to hand control over agricultural lands to farmers. "We realize that the farm worker beneficiaries will never have control over these agricultural lands for as long as they remain as stockholders" in Hacienda Luisita Inc., where they would remain minority owners, the court said.
Company lawyer and spokesman Antonio Ligon suggested that the sugar estate would likely comply with the order, which he has not yet received. "No one is above the law," Ligon told the ABS-CBN TV network.
He said about 4,000 other farm workers at the estate deserved land but were excluded in the court ruling.
The court also ordered Hacienda Luisita _ owned mostly by Aquino's uncles, aunts and other relatives _ to pay the farmers up to 1.3 billion pesos ($30 million) from past sales of plantation lands, including those that have been turned into a residential enclave and a modern highway.
The decades-old plantation, which features sugar mills and farming communities, has long served as a symbol of the Aquino family's economic might. A decision by his politically influential relatives to give up the bulk of their landholdings to poor farmers has been seen as a crucial test of the president's resolve to battle crushing poverty, which has largely been blamed on Filipino farmers' lack of land in the countryside.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino divested his share of the family wealth in the hacienda a month after he won a landslide victory in last year's presidential elections on a promise to battle corruption and appalling poverty, which afflicts a third of the Philippines' 94 million people.
"He has already divested, so there is nothing that will put him in a compromising position," Lacierda said in a news conference.
The Supreme Court has been at loggerheads with Aquino since his administration recently defied a court order that approved former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's request to leave the country for medical treatment as she faced elections fraud charges. Justice and elections officials later charged Arroyo in court, which ordered her placed under arrest in a hospital, where she has sought treatment for a bone disease.
The majority of the Supreme Court's 15 justices were appointed by Arroyo before she ended her stormy nine years in power in June last year. She then won a seat in the House of Representatives. Aquino refused to be sworn in as president by the current chief justice, Renato Corona, a former Arroyo chief of staff whom she appointed as head of the high tribunal shortly before she stepped down.
Supreme Court spokesman Midas Marquez and Lacierda separately said the court ruling on the hacienda was not influenced by differences between the high tribunal and the president, son of late pro-democracy icon Corazon Aquino, who had called on Arroyo to resign when she was implicated in corruption and vote-rigging scandals. Arroyo has denied any wrongdoing.