Presidential prerogative
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - September 13, 2020 - 12:00am

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin and outgoing US Ambassador Sung Kim, who made his farewell call at Malacañang last Monday, were both caught by surprise when the President decided to just cut through the red tape and issue an absolute pardon to Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, a US Marine who was being held in a detention facility at Camp Aguinaldo for the killing of a transgender woman in 2014.

News about Pemberton’s release first came out when an Olongapo City regional trial court ordered the release on the basis of the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) rule that reduces the sentence of prisoners who display good behavior while in prison. Having been a prosecutor, the President is familiar with legal procedures and so he felt that the right thing to do was to give executive clemency to Pemberton because the whole process could take months and maybe another year before the release could take effect.

Secretary Locsin, who called me in Washington, D.C. about the pardon, told me the President saw it fit to issue the pardon since Pemberton was alone in the detention facility and it could be assumed that he was on good behavior, making him qualify for GCTA.

Granting executive clemency is the prerogative of the President, a power given him under the Constitution. While there are some who say the absolute pardon is an injustice to the victim and the family, there are many more Filipinos who feel that justice has been done mainly because Pemberton was convicted and has already served time in a detention facility. In fact, some legal experts argue that Pemberton, being a young man, must have lost it (temporary insanity) when he found out Jennifer Laude was a transgender. And just like other prisoners, he was qualified to receive pardon due to good behavior.

While the United States at any given time never asked clemency for Pemberton, we must remember that we have on several occasions asked pardon for Filipinos imprisoned in other countries. President Duterte himself appealed for pardon to be granted to Filipinos who have been imprisoned in countries such as China and many others, most especially in the Middle East where the death penalty is in effect. Sometimes these governments give in, sometimes they don’t – as clemency is often the sole prerogative of a head of state.

In 2018, President Duterte made an appeal to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain for the commutation of the death sentence of Roderick Aguinaldo who killed a foreign national. Following the appeal, the Bahraini government said they will not impose the death penalty on Aguinaldo. Then in 2019, the President wrote to the king of Bahrain, asking pardon for the Filipinos who were in jail – and was assured that his appeal would be considered. Last June, Roderick Aguinaldo and another Filipino who was also on death row were given royal pardon and allowed to go home. Not only that – 16 other OFWs who were in jail for various crimes were also pardoned earlier.

The only time I can recall that the Pemberton case was ever discussed officially was when then US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris (now US Ambassador to South Korea) came to see me at the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC. He merely inquired about the status of Joseph Pemberton and how long the American Marine would be serving in prison. I told Admiral Harris that Pemberton received a 10-year sentence, and I remember mentioning to him that perhaps if Pemberton showed good behavior, he could be given a parole which is done under our justice system.

It’s normal for countries to be concerned about their citizens who are abroad. One of the reasons why the US refuses to be a party to the International Criminal Court is the apprehension that its citizens could be subjected to politically-motivated lawsuits fueled by anti-American sentiment, or that Americans could be targeted simply because they happen to be US citizens.

The United States has always tried to protect its troops in every way it can because these soldiers are deployed abroad and ordered to serve wherever they are assigned. I remember that long before I accepted this post in Washington, I have been suggesting that the Visiting Forces Agreement should have a provision wherein visiting soldiers should be confined to a certain area where they could be carefully monitored, with tight liberty rules applied like curfews and travel restrictions so that they would not be moving anywhere they want in the country because they are supposed to be on official business and not tourists.

As usual, left-leaning groups have latched on to the issue, resorting to their decades-old routine of accusing any sitting president of being pressured by the United States. I have personally seen how the President makes important decisions and I know for a fact that nobody but nobody, especially another country, can pressure him to make decisions to favor of anyone. President Duterte may listen to advisers but ultimately, he will decide purely on his own. Perhaps one reason why a peace accord has never been possible is because these leftists will never agree to anything but to change the government.

This is a typical “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation, with the usual suspects accusing the President of being pro-China when he does something and now saying he is pro-US if he does another. Some people are only focusing on the pardon. The fact is, when you’re president – you see the bigger picture and make decisions purely based on national interest.

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