Anger as US Marine in Philippine murder case snubs summons

OLONGAPO, Philippines - A US Marine accused of murdering a transgender person in the Philippines snubbed a summons by prosecutors Tuesday, sparking outrage by the victim's family who said they feared he would evade justice.

Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton failed to appear at a preliminary murder hearing to answer a Filipino police complaint naming him as the suspect in the killing in the northern port city of Olongapo.

"We hope the Americans will bring him out. They're coddling a worthless man," Julita Laude, mother of the murder victim, told a news conference after the hearing.

Police said Pemberton was the last person seen with the victim, Jeffrey Laude, before he was found dead in a hotel bathroom on October 12 with his head in the toilet and marks of strangulation on his neck.

Pemberton was detained by his superiors aboard the helicopter carrier USS Peleliu off Olongapo.

US Marines had taken part in joint military exercises and some US soldiers then headed to Olangapo, a well-known red light district, to wind down on the night of Laude's death.

Under the terms of a Visiting Forces Agreement, the United States can retain custody of US soldiers wanted for crimes committed in the Philippines.

Philippine courts have jurisdiction in such cases.

But after Pemberton failed to appear before the hearing, Laude's sister expressed concern over whether he would be brought to justice.

"Who will catch him? Who can we turn to to make him pay?" Malou Laude said.

Pemberton's Filipina lawyer, Rowena Garcia Flores, told a panel of prosecutors her client was still studying the police complaint and he did not have to appear on Tuesday.

"The subpoena did not require the personal appearance of Pemberton," Flores said.

Flores did not say whether Pemberton had told her whether he was innocent or guilty.

However the chief prosecutor, Fe de los Santos, said Pemberton was required to attend and ordered him to show up at the next hearing on October 27.

"The attendance of the Marine will serve as a very good assessment of the willingness of the US government to comply with the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement," de los Santos said.

The death has placed defence ties between the longtime allies under scrutiny.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday said the killing should not sour ties with the United States.

But a foreign affairs department spokesman on Tuesday reacted coolly to Pemberton's non-appearance.

"We are of course disappointed that the respondent did not appear on today's preliminary investigation," said spokesman Charles Jose.

De los Santos said the state prosecutors had up to 60 days to conduct preliminary hearings and reach a decision on whether to file charges in court.