4 US Marines questioned on death of transgender Filipino

HEREBY SERVED: A copy of the murder complaint filed by the family of Jeffrey "Jennifer" Laude against a US Marine is stuck on a barbed wire at the gate leading to the USS Peleliu, which is docked at Subic Freeport.

MANILA - "News not quite right," US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said Sunday, referring to reports that the United States would produce a US Marine suspected of killing a transgender Filipino and four other servicemen wanted as witnesses by investigators.

Goldberg tweeted that under the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the United States will make the suspect available, but whether the suspect appears in court is for his lawyer to decide.

"We continue to fully cooperate and collaborate with Philippine authorities in all aspects of the case concerning the death of [Jeffrey "Jennifer"] Laude," he said.

Goldberg said the United States would continue to work closely with the Philippine government "to ensure justice is served and the rights of all persons are protected."

He said the VFA made possible "close coordination between the United States and Philippine authorities in investigating Jennifer Laude's case."

In a statement issued Sunday, the US Embassy said four witnesses gave statements to Philippine prosecutors in the case involving the killing of Laude.

"Last week, city prosecutors met with four witnesses and swore them to their statements in accordance with Philippine law," the embassy said.

The embassy cited this as another sign of its continued cooperation in the controversial case.

"The witnesses will be made available for the trial," the statement said.

The statement did not say who the witnesses were, but Philippine authorities had previously said they wanted to question four US Marines who are believed to have witnessed the killing of Laude.

Another US Marine, Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, is being investigated over the death of Laude, described by local police as a transgender sex worker.

Subpoena served

Olongapo City Prosecutor Emelie de los Santos and Eduardo de Vega of the legal department of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) handed a subpoena to US Embassy officials in Manila on Friday for the appearance of Pemberton and the four other Marines in the preliminary investigation on Tuesday.

But the embassy said the four other Marines would no longer have to appear on Tuesday as their statements had already been obtained.

It stressed that "whether the suspect will appear on Tuesday is a decision that he will make in consultation with his Philippine legal counsel, in accordance with Philippine law."

Asked whether the four witnesses were still in the Philippines, US Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer replied: "They are not here anymore."

US obligation

Told about the US Embassy statement, Charles Jose, spokesman for the DFA, said: "That's a legal question. That's the call of the prosecutor."

Jose said that under the VFA, the United States has an obligation to make available US military personnel involved in the case.

He said the US Embassy and the US state department had issued statements that they would cooperate.

Jose said Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, had ordered a lockdown and stopped any US ships docked on Subic Bay from leaving before investigations were completed.

"Also, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service cooperated with the Philippine National Police, which led to the early identification and detention of the suspect," Jose said.

US Embassy spokesperson Anna Richey said on Saturday that Pemberton was being held on board the USS Peleliu pending the investigation into the death of Laude.

The Peleliu remains docked on Subic Bay. Other US vessels that took part in joint exercises with the Philippines left last week.

Defence ties issue

The killing of Laude has grabbed national headlines and become an issue in the defence ties between the Philippines and the United States.

Police said they found Laude half-naked on the bathroom floor of a motel room on the night of Oct. 11 with more than a dozen bruises, cuts and bite marks.

They said Laude, who had checked in with the suspect just over an hour earlier, had died from "asphyxia by drowning."

Police and the prosecutor named the suspect as Pemberton, attached to a North Carolina-based unit that had just taken part in the joint military exercises.

Under the VFA, the suspect will be charged in a Philippine court but custody will remain with the Americans unless the US government waives this.

Philippine diplomats have said they will ask for his custody once an arrest warrant is issued but it is not clear if the United States will grant this.

Following the hearings, which could take days or weeks, the prosecutor can either bring criminal charges or drop the case. If Pemberton is charged with murder and convicted, he could face life in prison.

The Philippines has said the politically charged case should not be allowed to derail longstanding defence ties, amid growing public pressure for Pemberton to be handed over into Philippine custody.

The Philippines agreed in March to allow US forces wider temporary access to Filipino military facilities under a new deal called Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (Edca).