A Philippine court has ordered the early release of an American Marine convicted in the 2014 killing of a transgender woman, with the latest ruling stoking anti-U.S. sentiment among some groups here, as the case did six years ago.
Former U.S. Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the homicide of Jennifer Laude, but was ordered released after only six years due to good behavior, a regional court in the northern Philippines ruled on Tuesday.
The killing, which took place when Pemberton was in the Southeast Asian country for military exercises, also led to a diplomatic row between longtime allies the Philippines and the United States over which of the two should have custody of the serviceman.
“He is now entitled to be released,” Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde wrote in her order, which was released to the public on Wednesday. “The Director General, Bureau of Corrections is directed to release the accused from detention unless he is being held for other lawful cause or causes.”
She further said that Pemberton had also paid the Laude family the full amount of 4.6 million Philippine pesos (U.S. $96,000) in damages.
The Philippine military said it would comply with the court order. As of Wednesday night (local time), it wasn’t known if Pemberton had been freed. He was being held in a compound guarded by Philippine and American security personnel at a Philippine military camp in metropolitan Manila, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. embassy on Wednesday declined to comment on the early release of the former marine.
In 2014, Pemberton, who was then 19 years old, was in the Philippines as part of a U.S. contingent conducting military exercises.
He met Laude at a nightclub in Olongapo city, in Central Luzon. The two went to a motel where she later was found dead with her head pushed into a toilet, according to court records. Pemberton was seen leaving the hotel.
‘US continues to trump Philippine sovereignty’
The court’s decision Tuesday to release Pemberton angered Philippine nationalist and leftist groups. It was also roundly condemned by Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who commented on the ruling in his position as a lawyer who represented Laude’s family.
The court order undermined sovereignty in the Philippines, a former American colony, and put U.S. interests front and center, critics said.
Roque said the early release decision proved that despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s “independent foreign policy,” the U.S. still had “the status of conquering colonials in our country.”
“As former private prosecutor for the Laude family, I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted [out to] Pemberton who killed a Filipino in the most gruesome manner,” he said in a statement. Laude’s death “personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty.”
In 2014-2015, the arrest and trial of Pemberton led to a diplomatic tussle. In December 2014, when the Philippines requested that it take custody of Pemberton, the U.S. Embassy in Manila argued that the Marine should be in American custody. The embassy cited, a bilateral military pact, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), as giving Washington the right to have him in its custody.
Pemberton was kept in U.S. custody at a Philippine military base in Quezon City, near Manila, but prosecuted and convicted by a regional court in Olongapo. Since his conviction, Pemberton has been incarcerated in a jail at the military base.
Now, the early release of Pemberton is a “travesty of justice” and “the most recent vivid example of the lopsidedness” of a military defense deal that favors the U.S., said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the nationalist human rights group Karapatan.
“This action will go down in the annals of the Philippines’ history as among the most notorious proof that the U.S. continues to trump Philippine sovereignty to this day,” Palabay told BenarNews.
The military pact with the U.S. unduly protects American military personnel, the Communist Party of the Philippines said in a statement.
“The special privilege afforded to Pemberton underscores the unjustness of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which gives American military personnel extraordinary legal status while in the country, and by default shields them from legal action, in cases where they commit criminal violations,” the party said in a statement published by FightBack!News.
In January, the Philippine president threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington but put that plan on hold in June.
Since assuming office as President in 2016, Duterte has sought to distance himself from the U.S. and instead strengthen ties with Washington’s rivals, China and Russia.