Miriam to lead Senate probe into Olongapo slay

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Senate will conduct an inquiry into the murder of a Filipino transgender woman in Olongapo City, allegedly by a US marine, the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee said on Wednesday, October 15.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said her committee will conduct the inquiry, in aid of legislation, after the congressional break, or on or about October 22.

Santiago said resource persons to be invited to the inquiry will include police authorities assigned to the case, employees on duty at the hotel where Jeffrey Laude, known as Jennifer, was found dead, and the victim's family members and friends.

Laude was found dead in a hotel in Olongapo City on October 11, where she was last seen with a young Caucasian later identified by police as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, a participant in the Philippines-US joint military exercises.

The senator deemed the timing of the incident as “egregious,” coming right after the joint exercises, and just before military leaders of both countries met for discussions on the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) on October 14.

Congressman asks for probe too

In Olongapo City, Kabataan Representative Terry Ridon announced in a press conference that he would file a resolution to ask the House of Representatives to conduct an investigation into Laude's case.

House Resolution 1568 will urge the House committee on foreign affairs and the committee on national defense to jointly investigate the case in aid of legislation.

Ridon said that by agreeing to allow US authorities to take custody of Pemberton and detain him in his ship, as permitted under military agreements between US and the Philippines, “we ultimately surrendered the sovereignty of the Philippines” to America.

HB 1568 states that “the agreements render the State and judiciary secondary inferior and if not, powerless to the foreign military allies.” It said this makes Filipinos vulnerabile to heinous crimes and other injustices.

'Terminate VFA'

Santiago said the custody issue seen to arise from the case would again highlight the need to "terminate" the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which, unlike the EDCA, contains provisions on jurisdiction and custody over US military servicemen who have committed crimes in Philippine territory.

“Presumably, the US military authorities will invoke the terms of the VFA in the transgender case.  This is one more reason why we should terminate the VFA,” she said.

Santiago, who had pushed for a renegotiation of the VFA, cited the "disparity" in the custody of US personnel suspected of a crime in the Philippines, first seen in the case of Lance Corporal Daniel Smith in 2005, and expected to resurface in the Olongapo slay case.

Smith was accused of raping Filipina Suzette Nicolas, earlier named by the media as "Nicole." He remained in US custody throughout his trial and even after his conviction, as he awaited the final resolution of his appeal. He was later acquitted after Nicolas recanted her allegation.

Philippines officials have said that will seek custody of Pemberton, though conceded that there is no guarantee that the US would grant it.

The senator said the VFA gives the US custody of its personnel, though the Philippines – which has jurisdiction over the case – may request custody of a suspect only "in extraordinary cases," subject to US consideration.

“The disparity is very clear. The Philippines has jurisdiction but, upon mere request by the US, our law enforcement is required to immediately turn over the custody of the American military personnel to the US,” the senator said.

Santiago noted that if the Philippines makes a request because the case is considered extraordinary, the US is not required to immediately grant the request, but to only take it into "full account."

In 2009, Santiago sponsored a resolution "expressing the sense of the Senate that the Department of Foreign Affairs should seek to renegotiate the VFA with the US, and in case of denial should give notice of termination of the VFA.”

In seeking the termination of the VFA, Santiago had argued, among others, that the agreement violates the Philippine Constitution, which provides that the US as the other contracting state should have recognized the VFA as a treaty, not as a mere executive agreement.

Marilou Laude, the sister of the murdered transgender, urged government agencies to speed up the investigation into the case.

“This case of our beloved Jennifer should not be another story of ‘Nicole,’ where the suspect remained free,” she said at the press conference with Ridon in Olongapo, referring to Smith's victim 9 years ago. – with a report from Randy V. Datu/Rappler.com