Aquino rejects call to annul US-Philippines forces agreement over murder case

Aquino rejects call to annul US-Philippines forces agreement over murder case
President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino.

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino rejected on Monday calls to tear up the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States after an American serviceman was charged with the murder of a transgender Filipino outside a former U.S Navy base.

US Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton is accused of murdering Jeffrey Laude, who also goes by the name Jennifer, in Olongapo City, about 50 km north of Manila.

Pemberton is under the custody of his superiors aboard USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship, docked in Subic Bay, a former US Navy base next to Olongapo, northwest of Manila.

Left-wing lawmakers, activists and the LGBT community have called on the government to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement if the United States does not hand him over. "Why do we need to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement?" Aquino told reporters while in central island of Leyte to commemorate the 70th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur landing, the start of US liberation of the Philippines in World War Two.

"I mean, name me any place that doesn't have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don't think so. What is important is there was a crime, we should gather all evidence to prove the guilt and justice will be served."

Olongapo prosecutors have summoned Pemberton and four soldiers to appear on Tuesday as part of a preliminary investigation.

In Washington last week, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the US military had "a great sense of gravity over what happened" and was cooperating closely.

A former colony of the United States, the Philippines is the oldest and closest security partner of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region. The two sides in April signed a new 10-year security pact that allows for a larger US military presence in the country as it struggles to raise its defence capabilities amid territorial disputes with China.

Aquino said the defence and foreign ministries were working with the US Embassy in Manila to resolve the issue of Pemberton's custody. He said the embassy was "making sure, based on the treaty again, that he is available or the suspects are available for both investigation in any and all judicial processes".

Under the agreement, the Philippines exercises jurisdiction over such a crime.

The agreement was tested in 2005 when a US Marine was accused of raping a Filipina at Subic. The soldier was convicted in a Philippine court but a higher court reversed the decision after the woman recanted her story.

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