Convicted killer US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton prepares for his deportation from the Philippines on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. Photo: Philippine Immigration Handout

MANILA – In a move with a geopolitical twist, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently granted an “absolute pardon” to an American serviceman convicted of the murder of a Filipina transgender in 2014.

The decision comes only months after the Filipino leader reversed his earlier decision to abrogate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA),  a pact that underwrites the treaty allies’ joint exercises and gives US soldiers a large degree of immunity from prosecution on Philippine soil.

Philippine officials have downplayed the unexpected pardon as a reward for the convicted soldier’s “good conduct” in recent years and that his early release was an “isolated case.”  

But the decision reflects the growing influence of American-leaning officials in Duterte’s government, who are wary of China’s rising assertiveness and the president’s friendly ties to Beijing.

With Duterte entering the last stretch of his six-year term, he is also betting on warmer ties with Washington lest he faces sanctions for human rights violations, especially if a Democratic Joe Biden administration comes to power next year.

A Philippine court had earlier convicted US Marine Corps Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton for the brutal murder of Jennifer Laude in a motel in Olongapo City, a mainstay of visiting American servicemen throughout decades.

It was just the first among countless cases of US soldiers engaging in abusive acts against locals, but the particularly gruesome nature of the murder galvanized public opinion and widespread empathy, with no less than current presidential spokesman Harry Roque serving as the lawyer for the victim’s family.

A protestor calls for justice for killed transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude. Image: Facebook

The US soldier, who visited the country during one of various annual joint exercises with Philippine troops, reportedly slammed her into the toilet then choked the victim to death after discovering that she was a transgender in a red-light district north of Manila. 

Throughout the years, Duterte has lashed out at Washington for interfering in Philippine domestic affairs and allegedly violating the country’s sovereignty through lopsided defense arrangements that give US soldiers significant immunity from domestic prosecution.

Under a special arrangement, Pemberton served his term in jail while remaining within US custody. Laude’s family demanded maximum punishment, but the regional court in Olongopo held Pemberton guilty for the lesser charge of homicide.

Last week, however, Duterte, who has overseen a scorched earth drug war that has claimed thousands of Filipino lives, expressed compassion for the convicted US soldier.

“I am not favoring anybody. Neither Pemberton nor the family [of the victim]… It’s my decision. Correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s what I think of the case. You have not treated Pemberton fairly. So I released him. Pardon,” he said without providing further details.

Authorities have scrambled to justify the presidential pardon, the first ever of its kind, as part of the government’s Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) credits system, which allows early release for well-behaved inmates.

“The problem with this, who can say that when he was detained he was misbehaving inside [the camp]? That he was shouting or he destroys things? Nothing. There is no list [of his misdeeds]. There is no list because there is really nothing, so it is not the fault of Pemberton that we weren’t able to compute because we should allow him the good character presumption,” Duterte said in English and Filipino.

US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 2017. Photo: Twitter

In turn, the US soldier thanked Duterte and expressed how he is “extremely grateful for this act of compassion.” Upon his release over the weekend (September 13), he also expressed “the depth of his sorrow and regret” in an official statement released by his legal team.

The 1999 VFA, however, doesn’t cover the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) program, which was passed in 2012 and applies to convicts under Philippine jurisdiction.

A 2009 ruling by the Philippine Supreme Court stated, “The rule in international law is that a foreign armed force allowed to enter one’s territory is immune from local jurisdiction, except to the extent agreed upon.”

A more plausible explanation is that Duterte is intent on currying favor with the US, which has maintained significant influence in the Philippines and stepped up joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in recent years.

Last year, the two countries conducted 280 bilateral defense activities planned, more than any other US Indo-Pacific Command partner. A major driving force for closer ties is the rise of transnational terrorism, seen during the 2017 siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by Islamic State-aligned militants.

A likely larger factor is China’s expanding military footprint in the South China Sea and its intrusion into Philippine waters. In recent months, top Philippine officials, including Duterte’s foreign and defense secretaries, have publicly criticized Beijing’s perceived aggression in adjacent waters.

They have called for resolving the disputes under the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague, which nullified China’s expansive nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea. China rejected the ruling, which lacked an enforcement mechanism.

That explains why the Philippine defense establishment was quick to downplay Pemberton’s early release, while emphasizing the mutually beneficial nature of security cooperation with the US.

US and Philippine troops arm and arm in a joint military exercise. Photo: AFP

“The incident that involved Pemberton is an isolated case,” said AFP spokesperson Major General Edgard Arevalo. He defended US soldiers’ overall conduct in the country even if “one or two from among the many training participants deviate from the established norms and desired conduct.”

“That does not embody the totality or the intent of training with our American counterparts —or with the armed forces of other countries for that matter” he added.

The Philippine military spokesman emphasized that Pemberton still served five years in jail and “no one is above the law and that for any misconduct or transgressions, they will be punished accordingly.”