President Rodrigo Duterte has granted an absolute pardon to a US serviceman who was found guilty of killing a Filipino transgender woman nearly five years ago.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin first broke the news on his Twitter account that Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, 25, could now walk free.
“Cutting matters short over what constitutes time served, and since where he was detained was not in the prisoner’s control – and to do justice – the President has granted an absolute pardon to Pemberton,” he said.
Mr Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque confirmed that Mr Duterte “had erased the jail term that Pemberton should have served”.
“He can go home because he has been pardoned,” said Mr Roque, who once served as a lawyer for the victim’s family.
The spokesman insisted that the President did not overturn Pemberton’s conviction.
“He’s still a killer,” said Mr Roque.
Pemberton was found guilty of killing Ms Jennifer Laude, then 26, in a drunken rage inside a motel in Olongapo city, near the former US naval base in Subic Bay, north of the capital Manila.
According to court records, Pemberton, who was off-duty after participating in a joint military exercise off Subic, met Ms Laude, who was dressed as a schoolgirl, at a bar at Olongapo’s red-light district on Oct 12, 2014. They later agreed to head to a nearby motel.
While having sex, the marine turned violent when he realised that Ms Laude – who was born “Jeffrey Laude” – had male genitals.
Mr Duterte’s decision took even his critics by surprise, considering his anti-US rhetoric in recent years as he pursued closer ties with China.
“What is the basis of granting absolute pardon to… Pemberton? Why pre-empt the court process? Why is the President in a rush to pardon the killer of Filipino transwoman Jennifer Laude? The absolute pardon, and the context and timing of the same, is a betrayal of national interest and a great injustice for the Laude family,” said Mr Renato Reyes, spokesman for the nationalist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New People’s Alliance).
Mr Roque, however, said Mr Duterte “was never anti-US”.
“He has always been for an independent foreign policy,” he said.
The case struck a nerve in the Philippines as questions over custody of US servicemen accused of crimes turned into jurisdictional disputes that sparked heated debates on sovereignty.
It once again tested provisions of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, specifically those on jurisdiction over American troops who commit crimes while off-duty in the Philippines.
Mr Duterte sought to scrap that pact in February, but changed his mind in June, noting the US’ help for the Philippines in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
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