MANILA, Philippines – Philippine officials defended their decision Tuesday to transfer a U.S. Marine convicted of rape from a local jail to the American Embassy, and a lawyer for the victim filed a contempt of court complaint against them.
The United States also announced that it would go ahead with joint military exercises with Philippine forces in February — exercises that the U.S. had earlier canceled, citing the custody dispute.
The victim's lawyer, Evalyn Ursua, alleged that the Philippine secretaries of the interior and justice violated the order of the Court of Appeals to keep Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, 21, of St. Louis, in a Manila jail while he appeals his conviction and 40-year prison sentence.
A 23-year-old Filipino woman accused Smith of sexually assaulting her in November 2005, as three other Marines allegedly cheered him on.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the government had to take action "in order to forestall the further deterioration in our strategic relationship with the United States."
"I wish to appeal for understanding from the people that this action will not affect the substantive issues at bar, nor impede justice and the rule of law," Arroyo said in a statement.
About 50 protesters, most of them women, burned an American flag near the U.S. Embassy and called Smith "a fugitive."
The case has strained relations and tested a joint military pact between the two countries, under which U.S. troops have trained Filipino forces in counterterrorism tactics.
That training has been credited with helping local forces make gains against Muslim extremists. But left-wing groups have staged regular protests outside the U.S. Embassy, claiming the American servicemen were getting special treatment, undercutting the country's sovereignty.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told a news conference that the government had no choice but to hand Smith over because it had to respect the bilateral military pact.
"We are telling the world that we are complying with our treaty obligations," Puno said.
A provision in the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs the conduct of U.S. troops in the Philippines, states that any accused U.S. serviceman shall remain in American custody until all judicial proceedings are exhausted.
The battle over Smith's custody prompted Washington last year to cancel the joint military exercise, with U.S. officials saying they could not ensure safety for thousands of U.S. troops while the provisions of the military accord was in question. Following Smith's transfer to U.S. custody, the embassy said Washington has decided to proceed with the joint exercises.
Puno denied there was any violation of the court's order. Judge Benjamin Pozon ordered Smith detained in the local jail, Puno said, before the U.S. and Philippine governments agreed he should be transferred to the embassy during his appeal.
The Court of Appeals then "noted" the agreement between the Philippines and the U.S. Embassy to have Smith transferred into American custody. The government took the appeals court's action as a green light to relinquish custody of Smith on Friday.
Puno said the U.S. Embassy granted Philippine officials unprecedented visitation rights to check on Smith whenever they want, and officials made the first visit Tuesday.
In addition to charging government officials with contempt, Ursua asked the court to dismiss Smith's appeal and issue a warrant for his arrest, in order to force him to start serving his sentence in a Philippine jail.
The case has created political problems for Arroyo.
Left-wing lawmakers said they may seek to impeach her — which would be a third such attempt in the last two years.