20 October 2014

US to yield Pemberton, 4 others

Palace says VFA, murder different issues

The United States government yesterday said it would comply with a local prosecutor’s order to produce a murder suspect and four other US Marines in the investigation into the killing of transgender Jennifer Laude.

The prosecutor ordered the five US Marines to give depositions at a formal hearing on Tuesday after police named one of them as a suspect in the October 11 hotel killing in Olongapo City.

“The United States will continue to assist in the investigation to help ensure justice is served,” US embassy spokesman Anna Richey said in an emailed response to AFP’s request for comment.

“This will include making the suspect, witnesses, and any evidence gathered available to the Philippine authorities,” she added.

Richey said the suspect was being held on board the USS Peleliu pending an investigation into the death of Laude, described by local police as a transgender sex worker.

The four other American Marines sought by prosecutors were described by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as witnesses.

Malacañang also rushed to the defense of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), saying the issue on Laude’s killing and the agreement’s review should be treated separately.

Civic groups said the quest for justice for Laude’s murder may be compromised because of the country’s defense agreement with the US.

“The issue for Jennifer should be treated separately. Because the issue on the VFA and calls for its abrogation, (as well as) calls for its review should be discussed on a different level,” deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said.

“Those are two separate issues, there are many considerations when you talk about the review of a particular agreement that we have with another sovereign country,” she added.

And as far as the investigation on Laude’s death is going, there is a process that everyone has to follow to the letter to make sure that there are no technical aspects that are being forgotten, Valte said.

It would also be a disservice to Laude if prosecutors rush things up and in the end lost the case because of technical issues, she said.

The Laude family complained of the delays in the government’s investigation on the case.

The government can’t rush things up, Valte said because there is a process that has to be followed in terms of dealing with criminal complaints relating to US servicemen.

Joseph Scott Pemberton, a member of the US Marines, is the prime suspect in the alleged killing last week of Laude.

The US Pacific Command earlier ordered the warship to remain at a port near Olongapo while the murder investigation was ongoing.

Police said they found the victim half-naked on the bathroom floor of a room with more than a dozen bruises, cuts and bite marks.

They said the victim, who had checked in with the suspect just over an hour earlier, had died from “asphyxia by drowning.”

Police and the prosecutor both named the suspect as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, attached to a North Carolina-based unit that had just taken part in joint military exercises in the Philippines.

Following the hearings, which could take days or weeks, the prosecutor can either bring criminal charges or drop the case. If Pemberton is charged with murder and convicted, he could face life in prison.

The government has said that the politically charged case should not be allowed to derail longstanding defense ties between Manila and Washington, amid growing public pressure for Pemberton to be handed over into local custody.

The killing occurred after the Philippines reached an agreement in March to allow its US military ally wider temporary access to Filipino military facilities.

American forces vacated large US military bases in the Philippines in 1992 as nationalist sentiment rose.

But Manila has sought closer defence ties in recent years in a bid to modernise its armed forces amid tense maritime disputes with China.

Vice President Jejomar Binay also expressed hopes justice will be given to Laude as he extended his condolences to Jennifer’s mother Julita at Laude’s wake in Olongapo City.

“I am condoling with the family and it is my fervent hope that justice is rendered. Somebody was killed and justice is expected,” Binay said.

Binay said he was in Zambales to check on the government’s housing projects in the province and decided to pay his respects when he learned Jennifer’s wake was being held in Olongapo.

“Somebody told me here in Cabangan that Jennifer resides here. So I decided to visit the wake and express my condolences,” he said.

“I talked to her mother who came from Leyte. She’s a Waray, and she has five children,” he added.

Pemberton remains under US custody aboard the amphibious warship USS Peleliu, currently docked at Subic Bay, as provided for by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Article 5, paragraph 6 of the VFA states that the custody of a US soldier facing criminal charges remains with US authorities “if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.” The Philippine government retains jurisdiction of the investigation.

Liberal Party (LP) Secretary General and Samar Rep. Mel Senen Sarmiento, however, said the brutal murder of Laude allegedly by a US Marine soldier must spark a review of the VFA and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to ensure more rigid rules on the conduct of visiting American troops in the Philippines.

Sarmiento said that the entire nation should condemn the senseless killing of Laude, and called for a swift review of the nitty-gritty of both the VFA and the EDCA especially on the conduct of US troops during the duration of their stay in the Philippines.
Sarmiento added that clearer parameters should be set whenever an American soldier is involved in felony especially on the custody issue, which remains a gray area in the VFA.

“We should all condemn this gruesome murder of Laude and our government would definitely ask nothing less than justice. This incident should spark a more exhaustive review of the nitty-gritty of the VFA and EDCA and tweak it some more so that it becomes mutually beneficial to both the Philippines and the US,” he said.

However, Sarmiento maintained that the incident should not be used as a basis to abrogate a treaty between two friendly nations especially with the US giving all the needed support to ensure that the primary suspect, US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, submits himself to the country’s criminal justice system.

“The US government has extended all the support that we need to ensure that justice takes its course. Like us, I’m sure that the US government would want Pemberton to answer for him crime,” Sarmiento said.

He said that the VFA and the defense cooperation between the Philippines and the US should continue to ensure that the balance of power in Southeas Asia is maintained.

“We have to continue honoring our treaty obligations while adopting measures to avoid similar incidents in the future. The country’s security cooperation and strategic partnership with the US should be strengthened and not weakened by this tragic incident,” Sarmiento said. (Charlie V. Manalo, The Daily Tribune, with AFP)