MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Monday that a murder investigation focused on a U.S. Marine should have no bearing on the two countries' relations, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington seeks no "special privilege" for the suspect but only protection of his rights.
Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who took part in joint exercises earlier this month, is suspected in the killing of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender Filipino whose former name was Jeffrey. Philippine police and witnesses said the two 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, according to police Chief Inspector Gil Domingo.
Pemberton is being held on the USS Peleliu at the Subic Bay Freeport, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Manila, and U.S. authorities have ordered the ship to stay there until the investigation is completed.
The Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. forces to conduct military drills in the Philippines, says that the Philippines can prosecute American service members, but that 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. personnel must serve any sentence in Philippine detention.
The killing has drawn protests, typically small, by opponents of the U.S. presence in the Philippines, as well as by gay, lesbian and transgender groups that have labeled the killing a hate crime. The nations signed an accord in April that allows greater U.S. military access to Philippine military camps, part of Washington's pivot back to Asia, where it wants to counter China's rising might.
Aquino defended the Visiting Forces Agreement on Monday and said Pemberton's case would not affect it.
"Why would we abrogate the VFA? I mean, name me any place that doesn't have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don't think so," Aquino said. He said the important task was to gather all the details that would pin down the killer "so we will get justice."
Kerry, on a brief stop in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the inauguration of President Joko Widodo, said Pemberton's rights must be protected under the law and existing accords.
"It is very important for our agreements to be upheld, it is very important for the rule of law to be upheld, for his rights to be protected but for the process to unfold appropriately," Kerry said in the Indonesian capital, where he met his Philippine counterpart, Alberto del Rosario. "We will indeed uphold our agreements with our friends in the Philippines. They deserve nothing less."
Accompanied by local police, Laude's family filed a murder complaint Wednesday against Pemberton with Olongapo prosecutors.
On Friday, Philippine authorities served a subpoena at the U.S. Embassy for Pemberton and four other Marines, who were sought as witnesses, to appear Tuesday before prosecutors in Olongapo in a preliminary investigation. The prosecutors will decide if there is enough evidence for charges to be filed in court.
American investigators have worked with local police, but have not made public any details surrounding the case.
The U.S. Embassy said Sunday that prosecutors had met with the four witnesses. The embassy said it was up to the suspect whether to appear on Tuesday, depending on the advice of his Philippine lawyers.