US Marine faces murder charges in Philippines

US Marine faces murder charges in Philippines
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.

Philippine prosecutors yesterday filed murder charges against a US Marine accused of killing a transgender Filipino, a case that has fuelled opposition to Manila's defence pacts with Washington.

The prosecutor's office said there were "aggravating qualifying circumstances" and "probable cause" against Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton.

Pemberton is accused of brutally killing Mr Jeffrey Laude, a transgender person who also went by the name "Jennifer", on Oct 12 at a motel in Olongapo city, near the Subic Bay Freeport, where the marine's ship was docked.

The panel of prosecutors said in their 23-page resolution that Pemberton, who was 19 years old at the time, used "treachery", "abuse of superior authority" and "cruelty" when he allegedly murdered Mr Laude - who was 26 when he died - in a fit of rage.

Mr Laude died from "asphyxia by drowning", according to an autopsy. Investigators said Pemberton apparently did not realise Mr Laude was a transgender person.

The killing struck a raw nerve in the Philippines, which has only recently given US troops longer and wider access to its bases to counter China's increasing military activity in the region.

In past years, questions over custody of US personnel accused of crimes had turned into jurisdictional disputes that sparked heated debates on sovereignty.

Two permanent bases that the US operated in the Philippines - Subic from 1902 and Clark from 1912 - had been magnets for anti-American sentiment, essentially because they were run as independent US territories, until they were shuttered in 1991.

Mr Laude's death is again providing fodder for nationalists pressing President Benigno Aquino's government to renegotiate a "visiting forces agreement" Manila and Washington signed in 1999, citing the pact's supposedly lopsided provisions in favour of American servicemen.

The crime has also been mentioned in challenges, now pending before the Philippine Supreme Court, to the "enhanced defence cooperation agreement" signed during US President Barack Obama's visit here in April.

Lawmakers are seeking to scrap that agreement.

These tests of relations between the treaty allies come amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.

Nine American warships cancelled port visits in October and November, after Pemberton's arrest, Reuters reported.

The foreign ministry's spokesman, Mr Charles Jose, said he does not expect the murder rap against Pemberton to affect relations with the US.

"Since the start, the US has been cooperating," he said.

The extent of that cooperation, however, will be tested when a judge issues a warrant to arrest Pemberton, who is currently being detained inside an air-conditioned, 20-foot container van at the Philippine military's main base in Manila.

He is considered held under "joint" Philippine-US custody.

Mr Jose said the Philippines would ask the US to turn over full custody of Pemberton once the arrest warrant is issued.

"We believe the US will continue cooperating, and they believe we are giving due process to their national. We believe, in the end, we will get cooperation from the US," said Mr Jose.

This article was first published on Dec 16, 2014.
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