Palace backs VFA review

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang is in favor of having the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) reviewed as proposed by some lawmakers in the light of the killing of a 26-year-old Filipino transgender allegedly by a US Marine, who is in US custody.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. pointed this out yesterday as he admitted that a review of the VFA following the 2005 rape case involving another US serviceman and a Filipina called Nicole did not settle ticklish provisions in the agreement.

Coloma said the death of Jeffrey Laude was saddening and unacceptable and “gave stronger basis to re-evaluate the prevailing provision in the agreement to ensure that national interest will be upheld and justice is served to our people.”

The suspect in the killing of Laude, US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, is in the custody of his superiors on the Navy ship USS Peleliu, which is docked in Subic Bay.

The US Navy is likely to keep Pemberton for the duration of his trial in local courts – possibly for murder – despite calls that he be turned over to Philippine authorities.

In 2005, US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith and three other Marines stayed in the US embassy while being tried for raping “Nicole” also in Olongapo City.

Coloma said the government is determined to serve justice to the family of Laude and that “the Philippine government is working closely with the US government” to achieve this end.

He said the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice and concerned officials were working on the processes leading to the prosecution of the case and the issue of custody.

The DFA had announced the Philippine government would insist on taking custody of Pemberton.

Coloma said a review of the VFA provisions was done in coordination with the US but that no formal agreement was reached on having some provisions modified or dropped altogether.

“And the reality is that this recent incident caught up with (the unfinished review),” he said.

“It (custody issue) was addressed and it’s still being addressed because of the new development that has arisen,” Coloma said.

He said the DFA would state the position of the government before the US and “our position is that justice must be served and we would like to be able to protect the interest, the national interest of the Philippines and its citizens.”

On calls for the abrogation of the VFA, Coloma said: “We recognize the right of Congress to pursue such initiative as the legislature is a separate and co-equal branch.”

Coloma said the VFA is part of the government’s defense initiative taken for the sake of national interest.

Abrogate now

For militant lawmakers belonging to the Makabayan bloc, the killing of Laude was enough justification for the abrogation of the VFA.

Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna, Fernando Hicap of Anakpawis, Antonio Tinio of Alliance of Concerned Teachers, and Terry Ridon of Kabataan signed a resolution demanding the repeal of the agreement.

Colmenares and his colleagues said the failure of the government to arrest Pemberton and detain him was “a big slap on the face of the Filipino nation and downright revolting.”

“This incident proves once again the one-sided, pro-US and anti-Filipino character of the VFA and highlighted the patently onerous provisions of the VFA on the custody of erring US troops, prescription of criminal prosecution and waiver of jurisdiction that essentially grant immunity from prosecution to US military personnel who commit crimes against Filipinos, effectively denying justice for the victims and all Filipinos,” they said.

They said that aside from the Laude killing and the Nicole case, US soldiers’ involvement in combat operations against Islamic terrorists had highlighted flaws in the VFA.

“The VFA has been widely and rightfully criticized as an onerous agreement that has paved the way for the permanent presence of US troops in the country under the guise of year-round military exercises and training,” they added.

They pointed out that the VFA is not valid and binding on the US since the US Senate has not ratified it, despite its ratification by the Philippine Senate in 1999.

There is thus a need for Congress to ask President Aquino to terminate the VFA.

The agreement provides that it will expire 180 days after either party serves a notice of termination in writing.

At least two senators – Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Francis Escudero – called separately for a review of the VFA after Laude’s killing.

Santiago, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said she would conduct an inquiry into the case on Oct. 22, two days after the resumption of Senate session next week.

The senator said the timing of the alleged crime was horrendous, because it came just after the joint military exercises between the two countries, and just before American and Filipino military leaders met last Tuesday for discussions on the new EDCA.

She also acknowledged that a review of the VFA might not be easy at this time for the Philippines, which is currently locked in a territorial dispute with China.

Santiago warned the Aquino administration to brace for tough negotiations with US officials on the matter, especially if it wanted to insist on automatic jurisdiction of criminal cases committed in the Philippines.

Not so fast

While Santiago was pushing for the abrogation of the VFA, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV was calling on his colleagues to give it another try, citing national interest.

“I will support the initiative (to investigate the case) so that the Filipino would see that we are out to protect the rights of our countrymen and we’re out for justice also for the victim,” said Trillanes, vice chairman of the legislative oversight committee on the VFA.

Trillanes said that based on his understanding, the objective of the Oct. 22 hearing is to look into the circumstances that led to the death of Laude.

Trillanes said that the provisions of the treaty were clear as far as jurisdiction and custody in criminal cases involving American troops are concerned.

He pointed out that the Philippine government can request the Americans for custody of the suspect as part of the VFA.

However, he said the VFA also provides that the detention facility where the suspect would be placed should be acceptable to both the US and the Philippines.

Trillanes said that this is where the problem lies because there is no facility in the country right now that would live up to the standards of the United States.

Overall, he said the VFA has been beneficial to the country and should be retained.

“I believe it is in the best interests of the country that we continue with the VFA. However, we must still look after the rights of our fellowmen who are victims in such incidents,” he said.

Keep VFA, DFA says

For the DFA, Laude’s death was no justification for the abrogation of the VFA.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose also denied allegations that the Philippine government is going “soft” on Pemberton.

He said the defense pact is not a failure because it gives the Philippines criminal jurisdiction over cases involving US military personnel.

“We’re pursuing justice in accordance with the provisions of the VFA and the provision of the VFA is the US has physical custody while we have criminal jurisdiction,” Jose told reporters.

The DFA earlier said the Philippines would insist on getting custody of Pemberton after the filing of charges against the American serviceman.

He said what’s important is the US should make Pemberton available whenever he is needed for “investigative and judicial proceedings.”

“We’re clear about criminal jurisdiction. He will be tried under Philippine laws in a Philippine court,” he added.

He said that while the DFA respects the views against the VFA as well as calls for its scrapping, the public should realize that the agreement did not fail in the case of Smith, who was tried and convicted under Philippine laws.

He said the victim recanted her statements that Smith raped her. “So it’s not the failure of the VFA,” he said.

“We should bear in mind that if there’s no VFA maybe we won’t even have jurisdiction over this case,” he said. With Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, MarvinSy











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