A US Marine convicted of killing a transgender Filipina secured court approval for his release on grounds of good conduct after serving half of his 10-year sentence, exposing how American troops get favorable treatment under the Visiting Forces Agreement, the victim's lawyers said.
Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton is the second US serviceman to be convicted in Philippine courts under the VFA. During marathon hearings, he admitted to choking his victim, Jennifer Laude, at an Olongapo City motel in October 2014. Laude, he claimed, tricked him about her sexuality.
Almost a decade before, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was convicted of raping a Filipina identified in court only as Nicole. Smith's fellow soldiers allegedly cheered him on as he had sex with the woman and the group left her body by the roadside in Subic Bay. Nicole recanted her statement, leading to Smith's release.
IS THE VFA LOPSIDED?
As per the VFA, Pemberton and Smith avoided jail time in Philippine prisons. Pemberton was held inside military general headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo while Smith was detained at the US Embassy, sparking public outrage.
The US Embassy in Manila, on both cases, invoked the criminal jurisdiction provision in the VFA, which states that while the Philippines has jurisdiction, custody shall "reside with United States military authorities if they so request." Custody will last "from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings."
Filipino authorities are also given one year to complete all legal proceedings, otherwise the U.S. will be "relieved of any obligations" under the criminal jurisdiction provision. The one-year period excludes appeals.
"All of this, the entire case of Pemberton, should serve a lesson to the entire people and to the government: the VFA does not serve the interest of the Filipino people. The VFA is concerned only with protecting the American soldiers," one of the Laude family's Lawyers, Virginia Suarez, told reportr.
Pemberton's case also casts doubts on the computation of prisoners' good credits, Suarez said. "How can you tell that his conduct was good when he doesn't interact with that many people?" Prosecutors initially wanted to charge him with murder, but was downgraded to homicide with a shorter sentence.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who was co-counsel for the Laude family before he joined government, issued a statement: "I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner. Laude’s death personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty."
WHY DO THE CRIMES INVOLVE SEX?
Jennifer Laude was a breadwinner to her family who called her by her nickname, "Ganda." Born as Jeffrey, Laude is among sex workers whose clients include visiting US soldiers on "R&R," military speak for nights out spent drinking and mingling with local women.
At the time of Laude's killing, R&R times were shortened. Olongapo and Angeles City north of Manila are traditional playgrounds for US soldiers and expats looking for Filipina girlfriends. The two cities hosted what were once the US's largest military bases in the Pacific: Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
At around the same time, a British investment banker in Hong Kong was arrested for killing two Indonesian women and stuffing their bodies in a suitcase. It was later found that Rurik Jutting was a frequent visitor in Angeles City, where he had a Filipina girlfriend.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR PEMBERTON?
A court ruled Tuesday that Pemberton qualified for early release, his Filipina lawyer Rowena Garcia Flores said. Court officials in Olongapo and spokespeople for the Philippine military or US embassy could not be reached for comment.
Major General Edgard Arevalo, the Armed Forces spokesman, said the military had not received any court order, but would abide by it.
In a separate interview with AFP, Suarez said she feared Pemberton would leave the country before the court could rule on her filing, although Flores said her client was still in the country.
YES, THERE ARE EFFORTS TO END THE VFA
Since being elected in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to steer away from the US ambit to pursue greater economic cooperation with China. In February he formally notified Washington he was axing the VFA effective August, after accusing the US of interference in his internationally condemned narcotics crackdown.
Manila later put the abrogation on hold "in light of political and other developments in the region", a decision seen as acknowledging China's increasing diplomatic muscularity.
-- with a report from Agence France-Presse