MANILA, Philippines – The U.S. military turned over a Marine suspect in the gruesome killing of a transgender Filipino to the Philippine military's main camp in the capital Wednesday, easing a looming irritant over his custody, officials said.
Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton had been detained on board the USS Peleliu at the Subic Bay Freeport, about 50 miles northwest of Manila, after he was implicated in the death of 26-year-old Jennifer Laude, whose former name was Jeffrey.
Pemberton's transfer by helicopter to Manila early Wednesday was agreed by the U.S. and the Philippines, Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang told a news conference. He said that Pemberton will be detained in an air-conditioned van, directly guarded by U.S. Marines while Philippine military guards will be posted outside the compound, he said.
"They agreed to put him in a facility which will pass U.S. custodial standards," Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press. "We're happy with this because he's a suspect in a crime that was committed in our country."
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who has described Laude's death as tragic, told The AP that the arrangement showed "mechanisms are in place so that justice can be served," adding there was strong cooperation between the treaty allies.
Philippine and U.S. authorities engaged in a high-profile custody battle over another U.S. Marine, Daniel Smith, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on charges of raping a Filipino woman after a night of drinking in 2005, also at the Subic freeport. Smith was held at the U.S. Embassy in Manila until a Philippine appeals court overturned his conviction in 2009, allowing him to leave the country amid anti-U.S. protests.
In the latest case, Philippine police and witnesses said Pemberton and Laude met at a disco bar in the city of Olongapo on Oct. 11, then went to a motel room where Laude's body was later found in the bathroom. She had apparently been drowned in the toilet bowl, according to police Chief Inspector Gil Domingo.
U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear has ordered Pemberton's amphibious assault ship, which joined large-scale combat exercises with Filipino forces that ended Oct. 10, to stay in the Philippines until the investigation was completed.
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. forces to conduct combat drills in the country, the Philippines can prosecute American service members, but the U.S. has custody over them "from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings." The Philippine Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2009 that convicted U.S. military personnel must serve any sentence in Philippine detention.
Left-wing activists and nationalist Filipinos have cited the custody provision as proof that the accord was lopsided in favor of the U.S. and undermines the sovereignty of the country, which was an American colony until 1946.
Left-wing groups have staged small protests at the U.S. Embassy in Manila and at the Subic wharf where the USS Peleliu is moored, demanding Washington to turn over Pemberton to Philippine authorities for prosecution and detention and calling for the 1998 agreement's abrogation.
President Benigno Aquino III on Monday defended the agreement, saying a crime can happen anywhere and "the sin of one person" should not reflect on the entire country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Washington seeks no special privilege for the suspect but only protection of his rights.