The killing of Jeffrey/Jennifer Laude, the 26-year-old transgender woman found dead in an Olongapo motel last weekend, should be condemned in the strongest terms. It has been described as a hate crime, a death sentence passed on her for choosing a sexual orientation that strays from the mainstream. (We use the feminine pronoun in acknowledgement of her choice.)
At a time when even that bastion of conservatism, the Vatican, is easing up on its once-rigid view of homosexuality, the fact that such a narrow and violent view on one’s preferred gender identity still flourishes is appalling, and reveals how far we have to go to protect human rights, including a person’s lifestyle choice.
The circumstances of Laude’s life may bother those who look askance at how her choices had courted risks, but it is the circumstances of her death that should concern us more. The suspect has been identified as US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, one of 4,000 US servicemen who had just concluded two weeks of military exercises with Filipino troops under the Visiting Forces Agreement. The VFA, which came into effect in May 1999, allows US troops use of Philippine military facilities after the eviction of the US bases in 1992. It also governs the conduct of personnel taking part in military exercises between the two countries.
The US Pacific commander, Adm. Samuel Locklear III, who was in Manila for security talks with Philippine defense officials, said the United States would cooperate fully in the investigation of the crime. According to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Locklear has instituted a lockdown and assured him that the USS Peleliu—where Pemberton is being held in custody—and other US Navy ships would remain in the country for the investigation.
Despite these encouraging actions, the Laude case raises the specter of a similar case involving another US serviceman almost 10 years ago. In 2005, Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was charged with rape by “Nicole,” who said she was drunk when carted off by Smith and raped inside a moving van while his soldier-buddies cheered him on. Smith was arrested and locked up in the Makati city jail for a few weeks, but he was spirited away by the US ambassador in the dead of night—apparently with the knowledge of top Philippine officials—and held at the US Embassy despite being eventually convicted and sentenced by a regional trial court. He was later released after his accuser recanted her testimony.
Smith’s case underscores the lopsided provisions of the VFA, in which Art. 5, Par. 6 states that while the Philippines has jurisdiction over criminal cases involving American servicemen, the US government maintains custody of them. This was what happened in the Smith case, and is now happening in the Pemberton case. VFA Commission Executive Director Eduardo Oban Jr. has said that while the Philippines would seek custody of Pemberton, the request could be rejected.
The case involving Laude thus becomes another test for the Philippines’ tattered sovereignty under the VFA, which has been assailed as hugely disadvantageous to this country. For example, the third sentence of Art. 5, Par. 6 states that the Philippine government can present its position to the US government “in extraordinary cases,” and that the latter can take this into full account. Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose said Laude’s case is indeed extraordinary, “considering that a person died.” But he admitted: “We can try but it’s not guaranteed that [the US] would grant our request.”
Another VFA provision puts our notoriously slow justice system on trial: The last few sentences of Art. 5, Par. 6 states that a verdict must be handed down within a year of judicial proceedings, or the case will be deemed over. Though the one-year limit does not include the appeal after the main trial, Oban acknowledged that “if we don’t get a decision within one year, that’s the end of the case.”
The Laude case presents in bold relief the many thorny issues that bedevil PH-US relations. It also serves as a cautionary tale against similar agreements between long-time allies but unequal partners, specifically the much-criticized Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed by the two parties last April in time for the visit of US President Barack Obama. That agreement allows, among other things, US troops to have access to and establish facilities in designated areas in the Philippines.
The killing of Laude raises serious questions about PH-US relations, the fundamental one being: Should friendship with the world’s superpower trump national interest?
Del Rosario has vowed to seek justice for Laude. She, and her country, deserve no less.
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