Rodrigo Duterte
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US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton has been pardoned for the 2014 killing of a transgender woman in the Philippines. Photo: AP

Rodrigo Duterte’s pardon for marine who killed transgender Filipino a ‘charade’ to keep US military in Philippines: family’s lawyer

  • Law group that represented family of Jennifer Laude questions decision to pardon Joseph Scott Pemberton, who drowned her in a toilet bowl in 2014
  • Centre for International Law Manila claims decision by Philippine president is ‘part of bigger deal’ involving arms sales and the South China Sea
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s sudden pardon for a US marine who killed a transgender woman is part of a wider policy shift by Manila aimed at keeping an American military presence in the region. That’s according to the Centre for International Law Manila (CenterLaw), which represented the victim’s family in the original case against Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of Jennifer Laude.
Rommel Bagares, the centre’s executive director, said the pardon was a “charade” that was “part of a bigger deal between the Philippines and the United States involving the Visiting Forces Agreement, American arms sales to the Philippines and the South China Sea”.

Duterte pardons US Marine who killed Filipino transgender woman in 2014

Duterte intervened in the case on Monday, interrupting his usual coronavirus briefing to announce he was using his presidential prerogative to pardon the marine. That essentially ended the hopes of Laude’s family, who were appealing a ruling by a trial court last week that signed off on Pemberton’s early release from his 10-year sentence.

Pemberton, controversially, has been serving his sentence in a converted air-conditioned container van parked inside the Philippine military headquarters in suburban Manila rather than in a Philippine prison due to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries. The unusual arrangement was because the US Embassy feared for his life.

Duterte said that during Pemberton’s nearly five-year detention in the van, no one had kept a record of his behaviour and there was therefore no basis for calculating the allowance for good conduct. Because of this, he had decided to use his presidential prerogative to assume that the marine had behaved well during that period and pardon him.

“If there is a time when you are called upon to be fair, be fair, be fair,” he said, adding “we should allow [Pemberton] the good character presumption”.

Protesters re-enact a fight between the Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude and US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton outside the US embassy in Manila. Photo: AP


Duterte’s pardon is a U-turn from his stance in 2014 when Pemberton was still detained on board his ship a week after the murder and Duterte was a mayor testing the waters for a presidential run.

At that time, Duterte had called for the scrapping of the VFA and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US if the Philippines could not get justice for the killing.

“If we don’t get a fair share for that particular case, it’s about time to scrap it,” Duterte was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as saying on October 20, 2014. “If we only end up looking like fools, and our jurisdiction is being played upon and nobody can really get their hands on the accused, why should we continue with those agreements?” he was quoted.

The VFA governs the conduct of visiting troops, including legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by them in the host country.

Last February Duterte announced the termination of the VFA, not over the Pemberton case, but over the US’ cancellation of a visa granted to Senator Ronald Bato dela Rosa for overseeing Duterte’s war on drugs while he was the national police chief.

During his pre-taped briefing on Monday, Duterte made no mention of Laude’s name, only that of Pemberton, who was a 19-year-old marine in the Philippines for a training exercise when he killed Laude, 26, by plunging her head into a motel room toilet bowl and drowning her there.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

Pemberton had claimed self-defence, saying he had fought back after being “molested” by Laude after discovering “it was a man” who was performing oral sex on him on October 11, 2014.

In 2017, the court of appeals rejected Pemberton’s alibis and affirmed his 10-year sentence and the 4.3 million pesos (US$88,000) in damages awarded to Laude’s family. The court said, “To our mind, placing Laude’s head inside a toilet shows that Pemberton never thought of Laude as a human being, but as faecal matter due to his sexual orientation”.

Pemberton’s lawyers raised an appeal before the Supreme Court but then withdrew it on June 2 without giving a reason. Coincidentally, that was also when Duterte suspended his termination of the VFA. Pemberton’s lawyers then handed a check of 4.6 million pesos – slightly more than the original award – to the court for the Laude family on August 26.

Marilou Laude, the sister of slain Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude, shows the media a photo she took of US marine Joseph Scott Pemberton’s murder trial. Photo: AP

On September 1, a regional trial court ordered Pemberton’s early release but the decision was blocked by the Laude family’s appeal.

Bagares described Duterte’s pardon as “part of a new rapprochement between the US and the Philippines”.

“You can see in the president’s turnaround … that the Philippines once again welcomes US support in its campaign to protect its rights in the South China Sea,” he said.

Duterte has previously talked of pivoting away from the US, the Philippines’ traditional ally, and towards China, but in recent months has shown signs of recalibrating that policy amid increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Bagares added, “the government tries to protect sovereignty in the South China Sea by bargaining sovereignty but you can’t do that. If you want to protect sovereignty, you have to fight for it. And the best way to do that is to fight for the little people because they are the ones who really matter to government”.

Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque, who represented the Laude family. Photo: SCMP

The comments by Bagares come after his former colleague Harry Roque, who represented the Laude family before becoming Duterte’s spokesman, said last week that the court order to release Pemberton after only five years was “unjust” and that Laude’s death was “symbolic of the death of Philippine sovereignty”.

After the presidential pardon, Roque claimed Duterte had not erased Pemberton’s conviction, only cleared the way for his release. Roque could not be reached for clarification.

Retired Philippine diplomat Lauro Baja said the Pemberton case highlighted “one of the sticking points during the VFA negotiations. Maybe this will be an opportunity to re-examine the criminal jurisdiction article in the VFA,” he said.

Baja, who twice served as president of the United Nations Security Council, saw the pardon as “part of Duterte’s predilection to make decisions before complete discernment of the case”.

However, the pardon was defended by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr, who tweeted on Tuesday that “only rabid anti-Americans see wrong in an act of right and fairness”.