The Philippine government will seek custody of a US Marine linked to the killing of a transgender in Olongapo City, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Tuesday.
The suspect was identified by the Philippine National Police (PNP) as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton from the 2nd Batallion, 9th Marines, based in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Pemberton was reported to have been the last person seen with the victim, Jeffrey Laude, in Olongapo City, Zambales, on Saturday night.
Charles Jose, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said the government will ask the US to turn over the Marine to Philippine authorities when a criminal complaint against Pemberto has been filed.
“We plan to do that. We will request them to give him over to us. We will request but there’s no guarantee that they will grant it,” Jose added.
The case is a fresh test for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), an accord signed by the Philippines and US in 1999 covering legal liability of US forces in the Philippines.
The VFA gives the Philippines jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes not linked to their official duties but it also says custody of these Americans will remain with the US government.
The agreement does state that in “extraordinary cases,” the Philippines can ask for custody.
Under the agreement, if a member of the US military shall be found guilty by a Philippine court, the sentence will be served in an agreed jail.
“The offense is more serious this time, so we will really do our [best]to make sure justice will be served,” Jose said, comparing Laude’s case with that of Suzette Nicolas, who accused Lance Corporal Daniel Smith of raping her in 2005.
“I think we have stronger reasons this time considering the person died,” he added.
Eduardo Oban Jr., the executive director of the Presidential Commission on the VFA, said Pemberton would have been placed under the custody of Philippine authorities if he had not been detained first by US authorities.
Pemberton is restricted to the USS Peleliu, along with three other possible witnesses to the crime.
But even if Pemberton is with US authorities, Oban said the Philippine government can request custody of the Marine.
“It’s just a matter of time when we will have to submit our position to American authorities. There is an ongoing investigation. When we are done with the investigation, then perhaps we can communicate that [request]with the American authorities,” he explained.
Oban said the Philippines will have jurisdiction over the case, which means Pemberton will be tried “under Philippine laws by Philippine courts.”
Malacañang on Tuesday also vowed to seek justice for the victim by getting to the bottom of the case.
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said it is important for the government to solve the crime and find justice “in the killing of a Filipino citizen.”
He also gave assurances that the investigation will be transparent.
“The detailed processes outlined in the VFA [that]have the ultimate goal to serve justice when crimes are committed will be followed,” Coloma added.
“The VFA contains specific provisions on the legal processes to ensure that justice will prevail. The Philippine government is firmly committed to attain this objective,” he said.
But the Palace official defended the VFA, noting that the crime should not discourage the country “from its determination to build a national defense that is in the interest of all Filipinos.”
“The government stands by the view that [the VFA]is an integral part of the Philippines’ national defense framework, and if there are particular incidents like this wherein our laws are broken, there will also be particular provisions on how to resolve these incidents,” Coloma said.
Sen. Francis Escudero called on authorities not to waste time in building a case against Pemberton to ensure that the latter will not escape prosecution.
Article V, Section 6 of the VFA or the criminal jurisdiction clause limits to one year the resolution of cases involving members of the US military.
He reiterated his appeal to the DFA to review and seek amendment to the 16-year-old pact, which he said is lopsided against the Philippines.
At the same time, the Defense department defended the annual military drills participated in by American and Filipino soldiers.
“We call on all concerned not to lose sight of the bigger picture and to look at these [PH-US exercises, Laude’s killing] as different issues. We look at it in its proper perspective,” Defense spokesperson Peter Paul Galvez also on Tuesday said in reaction to calls by some quarters to put a stop to the joint military exercises.
Galvez maintained that the killing should not be equated to the yearly military drills between the Philippines and US.
“If there are no exercises, nobody will help us in developing our capabilities,” he said.
“It’s a very unfortunate incident, We extend our deepest condolences on the family of the victim and we fully support a proper and thorough investigation,” Galvez added.
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA, WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE