SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2020 - 12:00am

That must be a great going away present for United States Ambassador Sung Kim, who is leaving the Philippines for a new posting: absolute pardon for US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton.

Kim had paid a farewell call on Duterte at Malacañang just hours before the pardon was announced, reportedly arriving at the Palace as the President was discussing the move with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.

Officials said the amiable Kim looked surprised when informed by President Duterte about his decision to pardon Pemberton. It was Malacañang’s way of explaining that the Americans didn’t ask for the pardon.

Duterte’s spokesman himself, however, has other ideas. Stressing that it was a personal opinion, Harry Roque Jr. said yesterday he believed the pardon could be in exchange for the Philippines’ access to a US vaccine for COVID.

Roque, however, was obviously kept out of the loop on this issue, possibly because he once served as lawyer for the family of Pemberton’s victim. Roque’s theory was also immediately denied by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who tweeted that there was no quid pro quo in the absolute pardon.

But Locsin himself does not seem to be privy to some of Duterte’s critical decisions involving foreign policy. This we saw on the issue of following the US lead in blacklisting Chinese companies involved in the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

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Only Ambassador Kim would know, and his lips are sealed.

Kim, throughout his posting in Manila, has in fact enjoyed good ties with Duterte. The two have met regularly, with little publicity. Kim once commented that Duterte has a “wicked” sense of humor.

It probably helps that Kim is a Korean-American with Asian sensitivities still intact. It probably also helps that while his government continues to express concern over the human rights situation in the Philippines, he has not engaged in megaphone diplomacy or come off looking like he’s telling the President of the Philippines how to run the country – the surest way to elicit a lengthy, cuss-laden tirade from Duterte.

So if the US ambassador didn’t suggest the pardon, what got into the supposedly anti-American Philippine President?

More importantly for critics, what did he mean exactly when he said Pemberton has been treated unfairly in this country?

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As many have pointed out, granting pardons is a prerogative of the president of the republic, who doesn’t even have to explain or give a reason for what should be considered an act of mercy.

Joseph Estrada, for example, didn’t spend a single moment inside a real prison cell following his conviction for plunder. His successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo immediately granted him absolute pardon, even restoring his full political rights, which allowed him to vote and run again for public office. (GMA’s interior secretary, Ronaldo Puno, told us at the time that he was instrumental in including that provision on Erap’s political rights.)

We’re still waiting for the full text of the absolute pardon for Pemberton. Some quarters say it would allow him to visit the Philippines again if he wants, but the Bureau of Immigration said Wednesday that he would be deported as an undesirable alien and barred from re-entering the country.

Probably because the critics included prominent personalities led by Vice President Leni Robredo, however, administration officials felt the need to defend the pardon.

Malacañang trotted out the number of prisoners pardoned by Duterte since he assumed power: 135 Filipinos and four foreigners.

Yesterday, as the Bureau of Corrections ordered the release of Pemberton after receiving the pardon from Malacañang, 93 inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa walked to freedom, 86 of them on parole. The BuCor said about 60 of the release orders were approved by Duterte.

Undesirable alien or not, it’s doubtful that Pemberton would have any appetite for a return visit to the Philippines in the foreseeable future.

His lawyer says Pemberton wants to resume his college studies in the US, majoring in Philosophy. He was just 19 when he went out for a wild night on furlough in Olongapo City, and ran into someone he thought was an amply endowed woman named Jennifer Laude. The trans woman did not out herself, and according to records of the case, gave Pemberton oral sex twice. Apparently wanting to go further, that was when Pemberton found out that he was with a transgender. And that was when all hell broke loose.

A male TV commentator elicited a lot of reactions recently after saying that while there is no excuse for murder, this tragedy would not have happened if the trans woman had been forthright about her gender orientation, since gays and transgenders are already widely accepted in our society anyway.

The TV anchor asked: what would other men have done?

Since Laude’s death, I’ve asked many Filipino men the same question. The LGBTQ+ community won’t like the answers.

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Inevitably, people are asking, in the light of the presidential comment on unfair treatment: what would Rodrigo Duterte have done if he found himself in the same situation? How far back does his idea of unfair treatment for Pemberton go? Is he referring to the detention, prosecution, trial, conviction or punishment?

The Laude family’s lawyer Virginia Suarez lamented the special circumstances of imprisonment for Pemberton, at a facility operated by the BuCor within the Camp Aguinaldo compound. This is what is unfair, Suarez pointed out.

Robredo and other critics have also noted that there are many Filipinos who are imprisoned under unjust and sub-human circumstances.

Pemberton’s lawyer Rowena Flores and administration officials, on the other hand, pointed out that the conditions of incarceration were agreed upon by the two countries under the Visiting Forces Agreement.

By most accounts, the US government will be taking Pemberton back to his country on a military plane, or maybe an aircraft carrier, initially to Guam or Hawaii, base of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

President Duterte need not say another word about the pardon. Still, it would be interesting to know what he meant exactly when he said, “When there is a time that you are called to be fair, be fair. Be fair.”

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