By Luis Liwanag and Jeoffrey Maitem
The Philippine president’s pardon of a U.S. marine convicted of killing a transgender woman has sparked outrage in the country, with opposition leaders and activists upset about what they see as preferential treatment for an American soldier in a former U.S. colony.
President Rodrigo Duterte granted an “absolute pardon” to former U.S. Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton saying the former U.S. serviceman had not been treated fairly.
Duterte’s vice president, opposition leader Leni Robredo, criticized what she called the unequal application of the law between the haves and the have-nots.
“Pemberton had lawyers, special detention facilities, a quick, public trial and an appeal,” Robredo said. “Now, it has become clear that he also had resources to have the president look closely at his case.”
“There are so many Filipinos who are in jail with lesser offenses, but are not given the same privilege,” Robredo said. “If you are poor, you will be punished; if you are rich and influential, you will be freed.”
Duterte’s pardon of Pemberton, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of killing Jennifer Laude, “is evidence that the government sides with the powerful,” Robredo said.
The presidential pardon overrode appeals filed by the government and Laude’s family after a district court ruled last week that Pemberton be released after completing six years of his 10-year sentence due to good conduct.
The court’s ruling had already sparked anger in the Philippines with many saying it showed how a bilateral military pact, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), unduly favored the U.S. Critics said Pemberton was receiving preferential treatment because he was imprisoned at a Manila military camp guarded by both Philippine and U.S. security personnel, per the terms of the VFA.
The U.S. embassy declined to comment on the pardon of the former marine.
In 2014, Pemberton, who was then 19, 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 motel.
Pemberton treated unfairly, Duterte says
Pemberton’s release was announced Monday on Twitter by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr.
In his weekly address later that day, Duterte talked about his decision.
“I am not favoring anybody – neither Pemberton, nor the family” of the victim, Duterte said. “But you know if there is a time where you are called upon to be fair, be fair.”
He said that he told his Justice Secretary Menardo Gueverra, who filed one of the appeals, “You have not treated Pemberton fairly, so I will release him. Pardon. Nobody can question that.”
The president’s decision surprised many, because since coming to power, Duterte has been trying to distance himself from the U.S. and move closer to Washington’s rivals, China and Russia.
In January, Duterte threatened to terminate the VFA with Washington but put that plan on hold in June.
In fact, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said last week that the court ruling to release Pemberton early would likely strengthen Duterte’s resolve to end the pact, because the slaying of Jennifer Laude was “symbolic of the killing of the sovereignty of the Philippines.” Roque was formerly a lawyer for the Laude family.
Locsin, however, said in a tweet that those against the early release of Pemberton were “anti-American.”
“Only rabid anti-Americans see wrong in an act of right and fairness. Now America knows who are its friends and who are its implacable enemies in the Philippines,” Locsin said on Twitter.
‘Unbelievable affront’ to Filipinos
For the Laude family, the presidential pardon for Pemberton is “a travesty of Philippine sovereignty and democracy” and “another hallmark of Philippine subservience to the U.S.,” said Virginia Lacsa Suarez, the family’s lawyer.
“This is another injustice not only to Jennifer Laude and family but a grave injustice to the Filipino people.”
Opposition lawmaker Riza Hontiveros concurred, describing the presidential pardon as an “unbelievable affront” to the Filipino people, especially to the LGBTQI+ community.
“While Filipinos who are convicted even of lesser crimes are never accorded such a privilege, an American who brutally killed a Filipina is allowed to walk free by the president himself,” Hontiveros said.
“The Laude family filed a motion for reconsideration over the previous court order on Pemberton’s early release and yet instead of the president showing his support for Jennifer’s family, his own people, he favored an American soldier.”
Several rights groups took to the streets Tuesday in Manila carrying placards urging authorities to keep the American convict in jail.
The development “is open season for discrimination and violence against transgender people and [shows] that American soldiers will continue to get away with murder on Philippine soil,” said a “unity statement” issued by various LGBTQI groups.