Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte justified his controversial decision to pardon a U.S. Marine convicted of killing a Filipino trans woman in 2014, saying he was not treated fairly.
Days after a Philippine court ordered the early release of Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, Duterte granted the American serviceman absolute pardon on Monday, September 7, that would allow him to walk free in as early as a month.
In a televised address late Monday evening, Duterte defended the move, saying the Philippine government was not fair to the American soldier, who was locked up in a special facility built just for him.
“It’s my decision to pardon,” Duterte said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is how I see the case. You have not treated Pemberton fairly so I released him.”
“Nobody can question a pardon. It cannot be questioned anywhere,” he added.
Duterte said the government failed to accurately compute Pemberton’s Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA), a mechanism under Philippine law that shortens a convict’s sentence based on good conduct.
Pemberton’s good conduct eligibility is the subject of a legal debate after relatives of his victim Jennifer Laude, challenged the court decision to release him early.
In a motion for reconsideration, the family argued that Pemberton is not entitled to GCTA because he was comfortably detained in his own cell.
For six years, Pemberton lived in a special facility at Philippine army headquarters in Metro Manila, instead of serving his sentence in congested Philippine jails.
The presidential pardon, a power granted by the Philippine constitution, cleared the lengthy legal roadblock for Pemberton’s release.
"If there is a time where you are called upon to be fair, be fair,” Duterte said.
Pemberton was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in jail for killing 26-year-old Laude in a motel in Olongapo, a city near Subic Bay, which was once controlled by the U.S.
Laude was found dead, slumped in the toilet, after Pemberton took her back to the motel. Pemberton admitted in the court hearing that he strangled Laude after discovering she had a penis.
Duterte’s decision sparked outrage among human rights groups and LGBT advocates in the Southeast Asian country who said the case highlighted a problem of impunity among American soldiers in the Philippines.
“President Duterte’s pardon of Pemberton sends out a loud and clear message that a Filipino trans woman’s life does not matter, that it is open season for discrimination and violence against transgender people, and that American soldiers will continue to get away with murder in Philippine soil,” a unity statement by LGBT groups said.
Under Duterte, the Philippines’ foreign policy has pivoted away from the U.S. as it warms up to China. But the case put longstanding tensions over Philippines-U.S. ties front and center.
Ferdinand Gaite, an opposition lawmaker, called Duterte an “American lackey”.
“Clearly the Palace gives more value to being in the good graces of the United States rather than give justice to its own citizens.”
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was the first to break the news of Pemberton’s pardon on Monday, indicating the geopolitical sensitivities of the issue.
Locsin denied allegations that the U.S. made the request to release Pemberton, saying even outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim was surprised by Duterte’s decision.
On the same day the pardon was announced, Kim had an audience with Duterte at the presidential palace to mark the end of his stint as the American envoy.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara said Duterte’s decision was “solely his own.”
“No one prompted it,” Guevarra said. “The U.S. ambassador arrived for his farewell call on the President. He seemed rather surprised when the President mentioned Pemberton’s pardon, and he thanked the President for it.”
An official of the justice department admitted that Pemberton’s pardon skirted the long legal process.
“Pemberton did not apply, there was no application. In this case, I think it was the President himself who decided to grant pardon based on his appreciation of the facts on the ground," Undersecretary Markk Parrete said in a radio interview.