By Joel Guinto
Manila, Philippines | AFP | Monday – Philippine prosecutors on Monday charged a US Marine with murder over the death of a Filipino transgender woman, in a case that has fanned anti-American sentiment and tested close military ties.
Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton used “treachery, abuse of superior authority and cruelty” against his alleged victim, lead prosecutor Emilie Fe delos Santos said as she announced the charge.
“We believe we have a strong case,” delos Santos told a nationally televised briefing.
Pemberton will not be allowed to post bail, she said. Murder is punishable by up to 40 years in jail.
Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender woman also known as Jeffrey, was found dead on October 12 in a cheap hotel in a red light district of the port city of Olongapo.
Pemberton, who had just finished taking part in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo, had checked into the hotel with Laude and was the last person seen with her, police said.
The charge sheet against Pemberton released on Monday detailed what the prosecutors said was an unprovoked and relentless attack against a defenceless victim.
“Respondent Pemberton choked Jennifer from behind. Obviously, in that position, Jennifer was deprived of the opportunity to defend herself,” the six-member prosecutors panel said in the charge sheet.
“Undeniably, respondent (Pemberton) made sure that Jennifer was dead. He did not stop at badly beating her up and choking her, he made sure she suffered to her death.
“He deliberately and repeatedly plunged her head down the toilet until she breathed her last.”
Pemberton, aged 19 at the time of the death, had asked via his lawyer to downgrade the murder charge to homicide, which carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
He has made no other comment on the case.
Laude’s death sparked street protests in the Philippines, a former US colony that gained independence in 1946 but has retained a close alliance.
An enduring US military presence since the independence has been a constant source of anger for vocal and powerful American critics.
The United States was forced to close down two major military bases in 1992, after the Philippine Senate bowed to anti-US sentiment and refused to renew their leases.
However the allies in 1998 signed a Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed US troops to take part in war games on Philippine soil.
Military exercises involving thousands of US soldiers have since taken place each year.
In March a new agreement was signed to allow a greater US troop presence in the Philippines, including more exercises and the building of new facilities.
This was part of US President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino had courted a greater US presence in an effort to counter perceived rising Chinese aggression in a long-running territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
But the agreement signed in March has not been implemented, while the Philippine Supreme Court deliberates on a challenge to its legality.
Anti-American groups have used the Pemberton case to rally support for their opposition to the expanded military agreement.
Aquino has said the Pemberton case should not sour relations with the United States.
However the case has thrown a spotlight on controversial provisions of the 1998 agreement, particularly one that allows the US government to retain custody of American suspects even while in the Philippines.
A public outcry pressured the Philippine government to secure the transfer of Pemberton from a US warship to military headquarters in Manila.
But even while at the military headquarters, Pemberton has remained under official US custody and he has refused to attend any court hearings.
Following Monday’s filing of charges, the local court which has jurisdiction over the case will decide whether there are enough grounds for Pemberton to stand trial.
There is no timetable for this process, and even simple cases take many years to complete in the Philippines’ overwhelmed justice system.
Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose called for a “swift” trial.
Laude’s relatives and lawyers welcomed Monday’s announcement, but said they would remain on high alert to ensure there was no special treatment for Pemberton.
“This is not over yet. We don’t have justice until Pemberton is jailed for life,” the victim’s sister, Marilou Laude, told reporters.
The US embassy had no comment on the Pemberton case on Monday.