Filipino officials, including President Aquino, appear excessively careful as they avoid the use of the words “suspect,”“custody” and “detention” in connection with the US serviceman suspected in the Subic slay, who remains under US custody.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA — When US Marine Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Scott Pemberton – the main suspect in the brutal slay of Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude – was finally brought to a facility in Camp Aguinaldo on Oct. 22, government officials issued vague, if not uncertain statements regarding his custody.
A team of US and Filipino officials flew in two Huey helicopters to escort Pemberton from the USS Peleliu in Subic bay, Zambales and brought him to a facility of the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) inside Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, arriving at 8:45 am.
“I think it will be more of a joint custody,” Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr, said when asked who has Pemberton’s custody, during the televised media briefing in Camp Aguinaldo in the morning. He explained that a total of six soldiers – two US soldiers and four Filipino military police (MP) — will be keeping guard of the US marine.
Catapang explained that there is one US soldier inside the container van and another one outside; then there are two MPs outside the inner gate, and two more outside the perimeter fence.
Further prodded, Catapang then vacillated from saying it’s a joint custody, to saying it’s a Philippine custody: “Yes, of course, our custody..he is in our camp, he is being guarded by our soldiers.”
Headlines of major dailies trumpeted Pemberton’s transfer to “Philippine military custody.” But when Jennifer Laude’s family attempted to get near the airconditioned van supposedly holding Pemberton, the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Public Information Office Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc clarified that Pemberton is in an AFP camp but under US custody.
The US embassy categorically said in a statement: “The US Embassy in Manila is aware of reports that an individual allegedly involved in the October 11 death of Jennifer (also known as “Jeffrey”) Laude, was moved from the USS Peleliu to Camp Aguinaldo, a Philippine military base located in Quezon City, where the suspect will be held under US custody.”
The US embassy insisted that under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the US “has a right to retain custody of a suspect from the commission of the alleged offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”
President Aquino, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents of the Philippines (Focap) annual presidential forum on Oct. 22, didn’t even want to use the word “custody,” because, he said, Pemberton had not been charged.
“Custody happens when you charge somebody. We are still in the preliminary investigation stage. He is in our camp—(Camp) Aguinaldo—not an American camp …So even before there is a requirement for him to be in custody, he is actually being made available for the investigative, and eventually, the judicial processes,” Aquino said, in response to a question on who has custody of Pemberton.
“It is our camp. He is being held in a building in our camp. I think that is the primary takeaway there,” the president emphasized.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, when interviewed after appearing at the Oct. 22 Senate hearing on the Laude case, said: “The person of interest is in Philippine territory in Camp Aguinaldo and he is jointly guarded by both US and Philippine government security.”
“I think we can say legal custody remains with the US but he is secured in a Philippine territory with the Philippines participating in ensuring security,” said the secretary. Del Rosario said that government is still requesting the US to give custody.
Del Rosario noted that Pemberton was not brought to the US embassy, unlike the case of US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith who was charged and convicted in the Subic rape case.
“While US military authorities shall have their legal hold over him (Pemberton), the presence of AFP forces guarding the area should assure the Filipino people, especially the family and loved ones of Jennifer Laude, that the Philippines is aware of his location at all times,”Del Rosario said.
The MDB-SEB facility is an air-conditioned 20-footer container van surrounded by two layers of cyclone fence. Catapang showed media a video of Filipino and US officials inspecting the facility, which was empty, except for a blue “military-type cot” and an air-con on the wall, and a toilet. The video was taken before Pemberton’s transfer.
At the Oct. 21 preliminary investigation held by a panel of Olongapo City prosecutors, Pemberton did not show up nor submit a counter-affidavit to the murder complaint against him. Under Philippine laws, he is required to answer the complaint against him 10 days after receipt of the summons from the prosecutor, which was delivered Oct. 17. The continuation of the investigation is on Oct. 27.
After the preliminary investigation, the state prosecutors will decide, based on the evidence presented, whether or not to file charges in court. Upon filing of charges, the court will issue a warrant of arrest for the suspect.
Aquino said Pemberton is even getting “special negative treatment” and “less rights than a Filipino.”
Quite the opposite of what the Laude family thinks, who, along with transgender and progressive groups, are demanding Pemberton’s transfer to a regular jail.
“Bottom line is this: If you are a Filipino accused of the crime, you will not be detained at this point. If you cannot be charged, you will have to be set free,” Aquino said.
“This guy is an American and he has less rights than a Filipino accused of the same crime. So you were saying ‘special treatment’, he is getting a special negative treatment in effect,” said Aquino.
The president explained that since Pemberton was not caught “in flagrante delicto, committing the crime” a warrantless arrest does not apply.
“He hasn’t been charged. He was not caught in the act, and our rules – not the American rules – our rules, state that you have to go through a preliminary investigation,” he added.
“If a Filipino citizen is undergoing a preliminary investigation and no charges have been filed, even if it were murder, I think you have to release them within 36 hours…You have to charge them before the 36 hours expiration happens; otherwise, you will be guilty of illegal detention… He is not even given that privilege,” Aquino said.
Aquino called Pemberton’s transfer as “a very healthy development,” since the Americans are making him available for the investigation of the case.
However, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, in a fiery statement said that the “U.S. has engineered sham Philippine custody over Pemberton.”
“He arrived by helicopter, protected from accusing eyes. He is detained in an air-conditioned facility. Outside his door are American guards. Outside the facility are Philippine soldiers. The mere physical arrangement indicates that he is being guarded against his Filipino critics,” Santiago said.
This, according to Santiago, constitutes VIP treatment. “The U.S. should have surrendered Pemberton immediately after he was named a suspect by the PNP SOCO team.”
Anti-imperialist activists said the transfer was only meant to “dampen” public rage on the Laude killing and growing anti-VFA sentiments.
“Though inside an AFP camp, the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) compound where Pemberton is said to be detained is essentially a de facto US military base and therefore still under the US government’s authority,” said Elmer Labog, chair of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles (ILPS-Phils) and of the Kilusang Mayo Uno.
Labog said the US government “is hitting two birds with one stone” with Pemberton’s transfer to Camp Aguinaldo.
“One, it would make it appear that the US is giving in to the request for custody made by Manila, and hence, lessen anti-US sentiments over the issue; and two, the USS Peleliu is unburdened as a detention facility and allowed to leave for its war role in the region,” Labog said.
Labog, meanwhile, commended Senator Santiago for reiterating her stand that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) should be reviewed or else, terminated. Santiago, who led the hearing of the Senate foreign relations committe on the Laude case, criticized the presence of US soldiers in the facility where Pemberton is being held.
Members of the media who positioned themselves outside the MDB-SEB compound were driven away by late afternoon of Oct. 22, by a truckload of members of the Civil Disturbance Management Unit of the PNP.
Live reports on television showed anti-riot police men arriving after members of the Laude family, along with their lawyers, insisted to be allowed inside so they can check on Pemberton. Denied entrance by the Filipino guards, Laude’s sister Marilou climbed over the perimeter fence, followed by Laude’s German fiancée Mark Sueselbeck. The two were later persuaded to leave without seeing Pemberton.
Footages taken by the media of Pemberton’s arrival showed a uniformed US soldier, his face hidden by a helmet and visor, being whisked inside the facility. Aside from this and the mug shots released by US officials, Pemberton has not been seen by the Filipino public.
GMA News anchor Maki Pulido was shown on television being surrounded by police men in anti-riot gear while she was doing a live stand upper for the “Balita Pilipinas Ngayon” outside the compound.
Pulido reported that the camp commander, Brig. Gen. Arthur Ang, said that members of the media are allowed only up to the Public Information Office, which was about two kilometres away from the compound.