OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines – The family lawyer of the slain Filipino transgender woman threatened to sue government officials for dereliction of duty if the Philippines does not get custody over the US soldier accused of the crime.
On Tuesday, October 21, lawyer Harry Roque said the provision in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) regarding custody over erring US officers continues to be violated.
US Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, the 19-year-old American soldier accused of killing Jennifer Laude, is held on board USS Peleliu under US custody, following the provisions in the VFA signed between the Philippines and the US.
Roque cited the provision: “The custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with United States military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”
He said the Philippines exercises primary jurisdiction, and it should have been up to the United States to request custody over its officers.
"The Philippine government turned down the entire nation when it did not insist on custody. That is gross dereliction of duty," he said.
Roque slammed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for "misunderstanding" the VFA.
Earlier, DFA spokesman Charles Jose said the Philippines has the option to request for the custody of the suspect but “it’s not guaranteed that [the United States] will grant it.”
"I'm warning the DFA. Read up on VFA and the anti-graft act. It will come to the point that the government officials who were irresponsible, we will make them accountable," Roque said.
Pemberton failed to personally appear before the Olongapo City Prosecutor's Office during the preliminary investigation on Tuesday, in response to the murder complaint against Pemberton filed by Laude's family last week.
To the Laude family, the no-show of the primary suspect during the preliminary investigation sent a message: run after me if you want.
Roque said the failure of Pemberton to personally appear before prosecutors was a consequence of the Philippine government's failure to immediately take custody of the US soldier after witnesses linked him to the October 11 killing of Laude.
Roque also said that if Pemberton continues to skip appearing before prosecutors, this may present a problem if he gets charged in court.
The city prosecutor will determine if there is prima facie evidence to file murder charges in court against the US soldier.
'Compel him to appear'
Laude's sister Marilou said Pemberton's failure to personally appear at the probe does nothing to reassure the family that he is still in the Philippines.
"Natapos na ang preliminary investigation na walang nakitang suspect. So baka pinaalis na iyan. Sino huhulihin? Sino kakatukin para pagbayaran sa kasalanan sa kapatid ko?" Marilou Laude said.
(The preliminary investigation ended without the suspect being seen. So he may already have left. Who will be arrested? Who will be made accountable for the crime done to my sibling?)
Laude's mother Julita appealed to the United States to compel Pemberton to appear at the probe.
"Humarap siya. Dapat sagutin nina ang ginawa niya," she said. (He must appear. He must answer to what he did.)
Olongapo City Prosecutor Emilie Fe delos Santos told the US Marine's legal counsel that they should "compel" Pemberton to attend the next preliminary investigation on October 27.
Delos Santos said Pemberton's attendance in the probe will "give a very good example on the willingness on the part of the United States to comply with the VFA."
Question on jurisdiction
Roque and lawyer Virgie Suarez said that Pemberton's non-appearance does not present a problem at this stage of the preliminary probe.
The probe – which aims to establish if there's evidence to charge Pemberton in court – will go on even if Pemberton doesn't appear.
However, if he remains a no-show if the case goes to court, it will prompt questions on the court's jurisdiction over his person.
"If Pemberton still doesn't appear, the case won't move if it gets to the court," Roque said. – with reports from Randy Datu/Rappler.com