Tuesday, October 21, 2014

US marine charged with murder in the Philippines

Jeffrey Laude, aka Jenny, a transgender woman, was murdered in Olongapo City in the Philippines on October 11th. Olongapo City is near Subic Bay where US forces are stationed.



An initial report in the Marine Corps Times from an internal Naval memo gave few details: “Philippine police report a homicide occurred in a hotel room in Olongapo City on the night of 11 October.The victim was reported as a male Philippine national ... preliminary witness statements indicate U.S. military personnel may have been involved.” However, on October 15, local officials charged Private first Class Joseph Pemberton with the murder of Laude. The Philippine government later served five subpoenas on the US embassy in Manila. One was for Pemberton and the other four for witnesses.
The murder happens more than two decades after US forces were expelled from the Subic Bay base. However, US forces continue to visit on a rotating basis and the Philippine government is now considering a new agreement that would allow more US troops to rotate through the country. Retired US Air Force Colonel Carl Baker who is director of programs at the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies said: "The Philippines is really driven by public opinion. These type of incidents really have a big impact on how they view their relationship with the United States.”
 The night of her death Laude was said to be at the hotel or motel with a friend and a "foreigner". She was reported to be uneasy that the foreigner would find out that they were transgenders and asked the friend to leave before "the foreigner could discover they were transgenders". The autopsy showed that she died due to asphyxia by drowning. After her death photos surfaced showing her body leaning against a toilet, protests erupted among Filipino transgender rights activists. Some signs read "US troops out now". A police report called the murder a "hate crime".
 Some authorities claimed the incident is unlikely to have any significant longer term effect on Philippine US relations. The Philippines is anxious to have US support for claims to islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by China and several other countries.
 Unlike in some countries such as Afghanistan, US troops in the Philippines do not have immunity from prosecution in Philippine courts. However, there are aspects of the agreement that are already a sore point with many in the Philippines. The agreement allows the US to retain custody of its own military members when they are charged with crimes rather than turning them over to Philippine authorities. They can remain in US custody until found guilty. After Laude's murder, there were demands that Pemberton be surrendered to Philippine authorities.
 The issue surfaced in a 2006 case when four marines were charged with raping a Filipina. Not only were all four held in custody by the US but when a judge found one marine guilty and ordered him turned over to local authorities, the order was never executed. Eventually when the woman on appeal changed her testimony the Marine was acquitted of the charge.
 A new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed in April, that would see even more US military personnel rotate through the Philippines for the next decade but the agreement is being challenged before the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine defense officials admit it may be several years yet before the agreement is enacted.
 Four witnesses who were summoned to appear at the Olongapo City Prosecutor's Office in connection with the murder already have left the Philippines according to the Philippine Dept. of Foreign Affairs. Charles Jose noted: “DFA was not informed by the US side that four witnesses were leaving the country. They are not required to do so” The US did give assurances that the witnesses will appear at the trial. In spite of the demands from protesters that Pemberton be kept in custody by Philippine authorities, the US Embassy in Manila said that it would keep Pemberton under US custody as was its right under the existing VFA. However, the Embassy also said that it would cooperate fully with Philippine authorities.
 There have been moves in the Philippine Congress to scrap the VFA. Miriam Santiago a prominent senator called for the VFA to be scrapped while others such as Herminio Coloma Jr., head of the presidential communications office said the government supported calls for the VFA to be reviewed.