Manila, Philippines – A guttural, heart-wrenching cry reverberated inside the crowded funeral parlour where the body of Filipino transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude lay in a white coffin as family and friends mouthed angry anti-American slogans on the eve of his interment.
Distraught friends and family demanded justice for Laude, whose body was found in a toilet at a motel in Olongapo city north of Manila two-weeks ago. Laude was last seen with a man later identified through a closed circuit television camera as 19-year-old US Marine private first class Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was subsequently charged with murder.
The case is now threatening to undermine relations between the US and the Philippines, and again brings into public discourse the controversial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a treaty ratified by Manila in 1999, that allowed for resumption of large-scale joint military manoeuvres with American troops.
The issue we have been trying to address with the Jennifer Laude case is one of accountability.
Analysts say it also endangers an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in April that was meant to bolster the military alliance even more by setting guidelines for more US troops to be stationed in the former American colony, which Washington expects to play a vital role in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The issue we have been trying to address with the Jennifer Laude case is one of accountability,” said Harry Roque, an international human rights lawyer representing the Laude family. “Will a US Marine normally exempt from jurisdiction of the Philippines be sent to Muntinlupa [a prison in the Philippines] in case he is proven guilty of murder?”
Roque said the case was another reason for the Philippines to scrap the VFA, which gives legal jurisdiction to American troops mired in crimes perpetrated while on official tour here.
Pemberton was among the troops aboard the amphibious assault ship Peleliu when it joined annual naval exercises recently. Police say he met Laude in a bar while on shore leave as the vessel docked in Subic, a former US naval base in Olongapo.
What exactly happened next is subject to court arguments, although what is clear is that Laude was found dead, head submerged in a toilet bowl.
Pemberton was initially held aboard the Peleliu, but was subsequently transferred to a seven-metre-long container van inside the Philippines’ main military base in Manila, where officials said he is under guard by American troops and on suicide watch.
Roque and many nationalist activist groups, such as Bayan (New Nationalist Alliance), have demanded that Pemberton be transferred into Filipino custody. Anger has also spilled onto the streets, with almost regular protests outside the US embassy since the killing.
“The Laude family doubts if they can ever hold Pemberton criminally liable,” Roque told Al Jazeera. “As of now, he is still in the custody of the US, hence, beyond the reach of Philippine jurisdiction.”
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“This has very practical ramifications. Without custody, the Philippine National Police has not been able to subject him to custodial interrogation in connection with the murder,” he said, stressing that local investigators still did not have basic forensic evidence.
Calls to the Philippine government and US Embassy seeking comment were not returned.
“In accordance with the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the United States has a right to retain custody of a suspect from the commission of the alleged offense until completion of all judicial proceedings,” a US Embassy statement said.
The Philippines’ foreign affairs department on Tuesday defended the VFA calling it an “integral part” of bilateral ties with Washington.
President Benigno Aquino III has sought to calm the public over the issue, promising that Pemberton would not be treated with “kid gloves”, and the government would do all it could to ensure justice through the courts.
However, he has steadfastly rejected calls to end the defence treaty with the US, saying an alleged crime committed by one soldier out of hundreds was not a strong enough reason to do so.
Outspoken Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said the treaty was heavily biased towards the Americans, and has called for an immediate review.
The fact alone that the government was not allowed access to a suspect in a “crime committed with extreme cruelty” already showed the discrimination bias of the pact, Defensor-Santiago said.
“For that reason, we are calling for the review of the VFA because these provisions are onerous,” she told reporters. “I will repeat a resolution I filed five years ago that was ignored. It was passed in the Senate, but there was no renegotiation, much less any termination. I understand why people are very angry with the VFA and want it abrogated.”
Pemberton’s is not the first case that tested the Visiting Forces Agreement. In 2005, US serviceman Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was charged with raping a Filipino woman inside a van as his colleagues cheered him on.
Smith was eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. But instead of being jailed in a local prison, he was transferred to the US embassy under cover of darkness as he appealed the case. An appeals court later overturned the conviction, in what many here still say was an erroneous decision.
The Smith case chilled diplomatic and military ties between the allies, with many Filipinos saying the government did not do enough to protect its citizen. It also exposed deep resentment rooted on the Americans’ past abuses.
The big picture here is national sovereignty. And it is tragic that the president fails to grasp this.
The Philippines was ceded to the United States in 1898 by Spain after it lost a war with the US, and a brief, bloody conflict soon commenced between American colonisers and Filipinos. While full independence was granted to the Philippines 1946, the US continued to control large military installations for decades.
The Philippines had hosted two of the United States’ biggest overseas bases in the past – the Subic Naval Base and nearby Clark Air Base. Both played key roles in Washington’s geopolitical interests in Asia, including during the Vietnam War and at the height of the Cold War.
A nationalist Senate, however, voted to end lease contracts in 1991, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo volcano hastened the US withdrawal. In 1992, the last American warship pulled out of Subic Bay, ending nearly a century of base presence, but also leaving behind tens-of-thousands of children born to American soldiers and Filipina mothers.
“I know that an act of one person is not the act of the entire nation, but still the government should ensure no abuses happen when American soldiers are here,” said Bhey Calaguas, a 42-year-old woman abandoned at birth by her American soldier father.
“When will we ever learn our lesson? This case has opened up past wounds for many of us,” said Calaguas, who also lives in Olongapo.
But with the Philippine military among the weakest in the region, Aquino is unlikely to scrap the treaty and hurt its military alliance with Washington at a time when it needs assistance to counter China’s threat over an increasingly tense territorial row in the South China Sea.
“How convenient that, when a Filipino is killed, our national leaders tell us to look at the bigger picture. Well, the big picture here is national sovereignty, and it is tragic that the president fails to grasp this,” said Renato Reyes, leader of the New Nationalist Alliance organisation.