A US Marine accused of killing a 26-year-old transgender Filipina woman was turned over to Philippine authorities by the US military on Wednesday in a case that has brought long-simmering tensions between the two countries to a boil.
Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton is accused of murdering Jennifer Laude, formerly known as Jeffrey, by drowning her in a motel bathroom toilet on October 11 after a bilateral training session near a former US naval base at Subic Bay, about 50 miles northwest of Manila.
The gruesome killing comes at a delicate moment for US-Philippine relations. There is political pressure in the Philippines for the former US colony to deny the US access to military bases.
Pemberton had been detained on board the USS Peleliu in Subic Bay until he was transferred by helicopter to a Philippine base in the capital.
"They agreed to put him in a facility which will pass US custodial standards," Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told the Associated Press. "We're happy with this because he's a suspect in a crime that was committed in our country."
On Wednesday afternoon, Marc Sueselbeck, Laude's fiancé, scaled a fence surrounding the compound where Pemberton is being held and was able to get into a restricted area.
Jennifer Laude— ABS-CBN News Channel (@ANCALERTS) October 22, 2014
According to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows US forces to conduct military drills in the country, the Philippines can prosecute American service members in local courts, but the US retains custody over them "from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings."
The agreement is mutual and designed, in part, to avoid kangaroo trials in a country where the legal proceedings might not match those of the United States.
Gregory Poling, an expert on US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that the decision to keep Pemberton in US custody could be controversial.
"The greatest downside of refusing to hand US service members over to Philippine authorities is that it creates the perception, justified or not, that no US soldier will actually serve time for a crime due to political pressure from Washington," Poling said.
The decision to hand the 19-year-old Pemberton over to the Philippine authorities was possibly influenced by the case of Daniel Smith, a US Marine accused of raping a Filipina woman in 2004.
Smith's case also took place at Subic Bay. He was held at the US Embassy in Manila until a Philippine appeals court overturned his conviction in 2009, allowing him to leave the country amid anti-US protests.
Laude and Pemberton reportedly met in a disco bar on October 11, and witnesses have reported seeing them enter a motel room together that night. Pemberton allegedly left the motel alone 30 minutes later.
According to Reuters, an autopsy found that Laude's death was due to asphyxia by drowning. Philippine police have said Laude was found in the bathroom and had apparently been drowned in the toilet.
Local officials charged Pemberton with the murder on October 15, and two days later the Philippine government served five subpoenas to the US Embassy — one for Pemberton, and four more for Marines sought to serve as witnesses. The four Marines attended a court hearing Tuesday where Pemberton was absent.
"Based on two witnesses' testimonies, we believe we have a strong case against the US marine," said Pedrito delos Reyes, police chief of Olongapo City, where Laude's body was found.
Regional experts believe that the incident could have significant geopolitical consequences for the US.
"The murder case dredges up bad memories for many Filipinos of the downside of the US military bases at Subic Bay and Clark up until the early 1990s — increased crime and impunity, or at least the perception of such, in communities near the US presence," Poling said.
The US military was kicked out of the country in 1992 after the Philippines Senate voted not to renew the Military Bases Agreement, a deal originally signed in 1947. The decision ended almost a century of uninterrupted American military presence in the country. (A Visiting Forces Agreement ratified in 1999 did, however, allow temporary American access to bases, and joint counter-terrorism exercises between the US and Philippine military were held post-9/11.)
With China increasingly making aggressive moves in the South China Sea, the US is keen to maintain a military presence in the Philippines and avoid having its troops expelled again.
In April, President Barack Obama visited the Philippines to negotiate a new 10-year bilateral defense pact — the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) — that would allow thousands of US troops to be stationed in the Philippines and grant the US greater access to Philippine military camps.
Since then, left-wing Filipino political groups opposed to any US military presence in the country have challenged the agreement in the country's Supreme Court. Following the murder, Filipino politicians, including Miriam Defensor Santiago, a prominent senator and former presidential candidate, have also called for revisions to the VFA between the two countries.
"The Philippines is really driven by public opinion," retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, who studies the Philippines closely as the director of programs at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Marine Corps Times. "These type of incidents really have a big impact on how they view their relationship with the United States."
Murder. Arrest. Detention. Statement recant. Acquittal. Home. #Pemberton #JusticeForJennifer— Not Fei Fei Sun (@ihateposh) October 22, 2014
The authority of the VFA has already been eroded in recent years. After the successful appeal of the Daniel Smith case in 2009, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that convicted US personnel must serve any sentence in Philippine detention.
Philippine defense officials now admit the EDCA may not be signed for several years, indicating a backslide in relations between the countries.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Monday that the murder investigation should have no bearing on diplomatic relations.
"Why would we abrogate the VFA? I mean, name me any place that doesn't have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don't think so," Aquino told the Associated Press.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said Washington seeks no "special privilege" for Pemberton, only protection of his rights.
"As long as the case is handled properly by both Washington and Manila, it will not be enough to side-track the new Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement, but it certainly will not help," said Poling.
"If the United States is perceived as protecting a US service member from prosecution, then it could raise legitimate red flags for the Philippine Supreme Court that if the current Visiting Forces Agreement cannot ensure US troops on rotations will face justice in the Philippines, then how could the EDCA," Poling explained. "In the face of what many Filipinos increasingly view as an overt military threat from China, that is something that Manila could ill afford."
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