Malacañang on Wednesday said the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) should not bar the Philippines from seeking custody of US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton who was ordered arrested by a local court over the killing of transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude months ago.
While admitting that the VFA has a provision stating that US servicemen shall be in US custody until all legal proceedings are over, Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda maintained that the government can “request” custody of Pemberton.
“We have to enforce the warrant of arrest. Now, there is the Visiting Forces of Agreement, which has that provision, but that shouldn’t stop us to formally seek custody of the US serviceman,” Lacierda told reporters.
Although Pemberton is detained inside Camp Aguinaldo, the Philippine military’s general headquarters in Quezon City, he clarified that the soldier is not under Philippine custody, noting that the “container” that houses Pemberton “is considered US territory.”
“They never turned over custody to us. So that’s why we are now seeking formal custody within the purview of the VFA,” the Palace official explained.
Pemberton was ordered arrested by the court soon after the Olongapo City (Zambales) prosecutor’s office found probable cause to indict him.
Lacierda said taking custody of Pemberton becomes an issue because the VFA should be applied in what should be a regular process of arrest and detention.
“There will have to be coordination with the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs], the [VFA], and the US Embassy. All this will be done within our laws and within the purview of the [VFA],” he added.
Lacierda said the Supreme Court decision on the case of rape suspect and US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith may be applied in Pemberton’s case.
Smith was accused of raping a Filipino woman a few years ago but the case was settled out of court in his favor.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago agreed that the Philippines should have jurisdiction on Pemberton, and that the US soldier should now be taken to jail.
Santiago, chairman of the legislative oversight committee on the VFA, said her view of the agreement is that jurisdiction should be with Philippine authorities after a warrant of arrest has been issued.
A former regional trial court judge, she added that the US and the Philippines can negotiate the custody issue but the government must make sure that talks will be transparent.
“Therefore, it is the Philippine government that will determine where the person must be detained,” Santiago said in an interview after presiding over a hearing of the Commission on Appointments (CA) also on Wednesday.
“Normally, any person who has been formally accused in court goes to city jail. So Pemberton should go there,” she added.
Santiago said Pemberton should be treated like any other ordinary person ordered arrested by the courts so that the government will not be accused of giving special treatment to a foreigner.