News Analysis: Case against American serviceman new irritant in Phl-US relations
(The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2014 - 11:45pm

MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - The alleged killing by an American serviceman of Filipino transgender Jeffry Laude has triggered a new wave of anti-American rhetoric in the Philippines and calls for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The incident also strengthened the arguments raised by militant groups against the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that Manila and Washington signed in April.

EDCA, whose legality is being questioned in the country's Supreme Court, would allow access by US forces to Philippine military facilities.

On Wednesday, a murder complaint was formally filed against US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton for Laude's death. The case was filed at the Prosecutor' Office in Olongapo City in the province of Zambales, some 150 km north of Manila.

Pemberton is reportedly now in the custody of his superiors on the USS Peleliu docked in Subic Bay in Olongapo City. Pemberton was part of the 3,500-member US contingent taking part in amphibious drills with Filipino counterparts that ended Friday.

The exercises were held in several areas of the Philippines, including training sites near Olongapo from September 29 to October 10.

Laude was found dead inside the toilet of a room in Celzone Lodge in Olongapo City almost an hour after he and Pemberton checked in on Saturday night. The two met at a nearby disco bar.

Police said the suspect was identified by witnesses from a photo line-up provided by the US Navy's National Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has initiated a senate probe into the murder incident. She also called for the immediate abrogation of the VFA because of its lopsided provision on custody of errant US personnel.

"The disparity is very clear. The Philippines has jurisdiction but, upon mere request by the US, our law enforcement is required to immediately turn over the custody of the American military personnel to the US," Santiago said.

Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs have indicated that Manila can always request custody of the suspect, but that the US side can reject such request.

Santiago said the United States should immediately turn over the soldier to the Philippine authorities now that he has already been identified as a suspect.

Santiago argued that custody should automatically be with the Philippine authorities since the suspect has been properly identified and charged.

The VFA is a Philippine-American pact that lays down terms covering the conduct of American forces while in the Philippines.

Section 1 (a) of the pact's Article V, which lays down provisions on criminal jurisdiction, grants the Philippines " jurisdiction over United States personnel with respect to offenses committed within the Philippines and punishable under the law of the Philippines ... "

But Section 6 of the same article states that custody will remain with US authorities "if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings."

At the House of Representatives, Rep. Terry Ridon of Kabataan (Youth) Party has also called for a congressional investigation of Laude's murder.

"One death is one too many. Congress must again open the debates on the abrogation of the VFA and the junking of the EDCA," he said.

The recent incident involving Pemberton is similar to the rape case filed in 2005 by a Filipino woman identified only as "Nicole" against US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith and three others.

Smith was not detained during the trial process, but was briefly held at the Makati City jail after being found guilty on Dec. 4, 2006. Through manoeuvring by then US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney, Smith was whisked to the US Embassy late at night on Dec. 29, 2006 and held there while his conviction was on appeal.

Smith was never returned to Philippine custody as he was eventually acquitted in April 2009, after the woman recanted her accusations. He was immediately flown back to the Unite States.

Renato Reyes, secretary general of the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance), warned that more cases involving visiting American servicemen might happen with the implementation of EDCA.

"EDCA will definitely multiply such cases since US troops will be allowed to base in our country. Their permanent presence will make our countrymen more vulnerable to abuse," Reyes said.

The alliance, along with other civil society groups, has accused Philippine President Benigno Aquino III of committing culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust in pushing for EDCA. They said the agreement violates the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.  

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