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Protesters denounce the killing of Jennifer Laude as a consequence of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which has been in place for the past 15 years. (c) Erik de Castro for Reuters

Transgender’s killing renews heated debate over VFA

IN THE late hours of Saturday, 11 October 2014, a young American Marine met the acquaintance of a transgender woman over drinks, against a backdrop of flaring disco lights and throbbing club music. Unknown to both of them, their lives would never be the same again thereafter.

According to eyewitnesses, US Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton eventually left the Ambyanz disco bar located in Olongapo City with his new found friend, Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude, a transgender woman. Pemberton was stationed at the US Peleliu and took part in joint military exercise held between military forces of the Philippines and the United States.

Pemberton and Laude checked in at a motel found near the disco bar where they first met. As claimed by motel staff, after 30 minutes from checking in, they saw Pemberton departing from the motel, leaving the door of the rented room slightly open. Laude’s lifeless body was discovered by a housekeeper in the bathroom, found partly wrapped in a bedsheet.

According to an inspector of the PNP, Jennifer appeared to have died from drowning. This was confirmed by the autopsy report, which made the conclusion that Jennifer died from “asphyxiation by drowning”.

Two used condoms were also retrieved from the scene of the crime. According to Chief Superintndent Theresea Ann Cid of the PNP Crime Laboratory, “[t]he first condom has fresh seminal fluid, with fecal material. The second condom seems not to have the presence of semen… Apparently, they were used.”

Murder complaint filed against Pemberton

Accompanied by police officers and lawyer Atty. Harry Roque, Marilou Laude, Jennifer’s sister, filed a complaint for murder against Pemberton in the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office.

“I think we have sufficient evidence to sustain the charge of murder,” Atty. Roque said in a local television interview.

Eventually, the preliminary investigation was initiated by the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office, headed by Prosecutor Emilie Fe Delos Santos. Pemberton was a no show during the proceeding. Counsel for the accused, Atty. Rowena Garcia, justified her client’s absence by claiming that the subpoena did not compel Pemberton to attend the preliminary investigation.

Killing sparks debate over custody provision of the VFA

The grisly killing of Jennifer has rekindled the public’s interest over the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a bilateral military agreement forged between the Philippines and the United States which came into force on May 27, 1999. The VFA paved the way for the welcoming of American troops in Philippine soil for training and military support activities with their Filipino counterparts.

Under Article 5, Section 6 of the said agreement, prior to conviction, the US has the right to retain custody over its military personnel.

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg emphasized that the VFA is crystal clear in stating that the right of custody over the accused belongs to the US while jurisdiction is with the Philippines.

“But such right can be waived and we affirm that if a warrant of arrest is issued, we will request the US to turn over the serviceman’s custody to us,” Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario explained, reacting to criticism by some sectors that the VFA is an affront to Philippine sovereignty and prevents the serving of justice for victims of crimes committed by visiting military servicemen.

The issue of custody under the VFA has been the source of some protest and uproar, alleging that the said agreement heavily favors the US and is devoid of fairness and impartiality, to the prejudice of the Philippines. “The case proves once again that concerns over the one-sidedness of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement are not imagined. We have seen how Filipinos can become helpless victims by US military forces in our very own country under the unequal agreements like VFA and EDCA,” according to Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares.

Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo De Manila University, on the other hand, said that “[w]e must be vigilant in stating that US military personnel are `visiting forces,’ not `invading forces,’” adding that foreign military personnel should uphold Philippine law, and not “harm” or “molest” Filipinos.

An isolated case

Some, however, have called for the easing of emotions over the junking of the VFA.

In an interview, House of Representatives Speaker Sonny Belmonte rejected the idea of abandoning the VFA. “I think the big picture has something to do with our defense posture, our position in the face of power structures in our part of the world. That definitely cannot be equated with the one incident wherein we don’t even know the facts of the incident,” Belmonte said.

Pemberton now detained in Camp Aguinaldo

Amid calls for the transfer of Pemberton from his cell inside the USS Peleliu to a holding facility under Philippine authorities, on Wednesday, 22 October 2014, the United States allowed the transfer of Pemberton to Camp Aguinaldo, the main headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

In a press conference held by AFP Chief of Staff Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., Pemberton “will be detained at the Mutual Defense Board Security Engagement Facility inside the Camp while the preliminary investigation is ongoing,” He added that Pemberton “will be sleeping in a military-type camp bed (in a room) with an air-conditioned system.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Laude’s body was lowered to its final resting place in Heritage Memorial Park Olongapo City late afternoon of Friday, October 24, amid the bitter tears and fierce cries for justice of Laude’s family, friends, German fiancé, Mark Sueselbeck, and some members of the LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) community.

Aside from the horrendous manner by which their loved one perished from the earth, the excrutiating pain felt by Jennifer’s loved ones is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that the fulfillment of justice for Jennifer will certainly not be easy and uncomplicated. The young US Marine and the murdered transgender are not the only parties to the case. Inevitably, this murder case drags with it the interests of the most powerful nation on earth and its relations with one of its valuable allies in Asia, in a time where the United States aims to reestablish itself as a superpower in the Pacific. P

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