By Buena Rilyne C. Bernal

Pemberton jail transfer plea to put to test Duterte’s anti-US stance

Posted on October 10, 2016

AMID comments critical of the United States by President Rodrigo R. Duterte himself, a lawyer for the family of slain transgender Jeffrey Jennifer S. Laude appealed to the Philippine government for the transfer of US soldier Joseph Scott Pemberton to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City.

In this December 2015 file photo, protesters outside Camp Aguinaldo call for the detention of US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton at the national penitentiary. -- AFP
Pemberton was convicted of homicide in December last year for the 2014 killing of the Filipino transgender.

“Part of our statement will be to challenge Duterte, Bato (Philippine National Police Chief Ronald M. dela Rosa), and DoJ (Department of Justice) to transfer Pemberton to National Bilibid,” lawyer Virginia L. Suarez told BusinessWorld in a phone message.

She said she would make this public appeal on Oct. 12, the death anniversary of Mr. Laude (referred to as a man in the decision by Olongapo City’s Regional Trial Court Branch 74).

“I’d like to know how they would respond,” she added.

Pemberton was sentenced with a six-to-ten-year prison term over the killing of Mr. Laude, whose lifeless body was found slumped in the toilet of a hotel in Olongapo City after the two were seen checking in together.

The high-profile case reignited calls to end the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows US visiting soldiers like Pemberton on Philippine soil.

While on trial, Pemberton was in the custody of the US in a holding facility inside Camp Aguinaldo in accordance with a provision under the VFA.

Ms. Suarez said Pemberton remains in Camp Aguinaldo.

“It is our position that the facility where he is being jailed is a US facility where none of our AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) or police officers have easy access,” she said in one of her messages.

But the NBP, the country’s main penitentiary where the Laude family wants Pemberton imprisoned, does not comply with international standards on prison space.

State figures as of 2012 show that there are 20,982 inmates in NBP, despite its maximum capacity of less than 10,000 inmates.

The Olongapo court upon Pemberton’s appeal and in accordance with the VFA Commission subsequently ruled on the US soldier’s stay at Camp Aguinaldo following his conviction, Ms. Suarez explained.

US-Philippines ties have been strained by Mr. Duterte’s vitriolic remarks against the US, its incumbent President Barack H. Obama, and its State Department -- remarks that are unprecedented in the Philippines’ presidency -- in response to international criticism, including by the US, on the Philippine government’s war on illegal drugs and its rising death tally.

Mr. Duterte’s top diplomat, Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr., who had been based in the United States before his present assignment, has affirmed Mr. Duterte’s position with his also notable statements -- particularly his “America has failed us” post on social media, which is also on the Web site of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Yet, while he has backed Mr. Duterte’s remarks that military exercises with the US will end soon, Mr. Yasay also noted the US remains the Philippines’ only military ally.

He told a Senate panel last week that “revitalized” ties with China is “not from a military viewpoint,” in contrast to Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana’s remarks at a forum last Friday hinting at the option of the Philippines buying arms from China and Russia.

Senator Richard J. Gordon, who had been mayor of Olongapo City where a US naval base was previously located, said Wednesday that Mr. Duterte’s tirades against the US could be an “internal strategy” given the Philippines’ planned talks with China over a maritime dispute.

Mr. Gordon backed Mr. Duterte’s position on establishing an “independent foreign policy,” which meant diversifying state partnerships.

“So that America will treat us more with respect,” the senator said.

Marami silang naitulong pero marami rin silang hindi magandang ginagawa (They helped us a lot, but they also did many things that were not good),” he told reporters.

“Unequal treaties are the result of unequal bargaining strength,” Mr. Gordon also said, citing the VFA which allows US visiting soldiers on trial in the country to be under US custody instead of detention in Philippine jails.

Mr. Gordon said, however, he doesn’t see an end to US-Philippines ties.

Mr. Duterte had earlier threatened to end the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014 by representatives of his predecessor, Benigno S. C. Aquino III, and Mr. Obama.

The agreement allows abrogation, with the abrogating party giving “one year’s written notice through diplomatic channels of its intention to terminate the Agreement.”