Feeling defeated by the early release of a US Marine who brutally killed a transgender woman, Filipino activists turned their attention to military pacts between the Philippines and the United States that they argue fuel impunity for American servicemen in the country.
Supporters of Jennifer Laude, the 26-year-old transgender woman killed by Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton in 2014, came out of their homes on a rainy Friday, September 11 in the virus-stricken Philippine capital to condemn President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial decision to pardon him.
More than 100 protesters flocked to the Commission on Human Rights, an independent government body that investigates all forms of human rights violations.
On Monday, September 7, Duterte granted absolute pardon to Pemberton which cleared the legal roadblock for his release from detention. By Friday morning, he was turned over to the Philippine Bureau of Immigration for deportation, awaiting final clearance from Philippine intelligence officials and flight arrangements from the U.S. Embassy in Manila before being sent back home.
Virginia Lacsa Suarez, legal counsel for the Laude family and one of the participants in the demonstration, called on Filipinos to push a “truly independent foreign policy,” saying Pemberton’s pardon was subservience to the American superpower.
A former American colony, the Philippines has several defense agreements with the U.S., which maintains a significant military presence there despite rising Chinese influence in the region.
“For as long as the Visiting Force Agreement, the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement are there, there will be more Pemberton, there will be more Jennifer and that is something that we should not allow,” Suarez told VICE News.
Suarez said the Laude family was “devastated” and “angered” by Duterte’s decision to pardon Pemberton, revealing that the Philippine government did not even reach out to them before such a decision was made.
Tough-talking Duterte has been lashing out at the U.S. since he assumed office in 2016, declaring his “independence” from what his administration called “carrot and stick” American diplomacy.
The Philippine leader warmed to China, openly declaring his love to President Xi Jinping and the values he holds even as the two countries feud over territory in the disputed South China Sea.
But critics said the surprise pardon granted to Pemberton, which came after the Philippines backed down from threats to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), was an example of kowtowing to the U.S.
In February 2020, Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA, which allowed American troops access to the Philippines either for official business or joint military exercises. But upon the president’s instruction, the government suspended the planned termination of VFA in June 2020.
LGBTQ advocates in the Philippines said the free pass given to Pemberton was a huge setback for their fight for equal rights and protection as they renewed calls for the passage of a long-stalled anti-discrimination law.
"Forgiveness was not for Duterte to give,” Ivanka Custodio, coordinator of rights group Camp Queer, told the crowd of protesters. “That forgiveness is to be given by those who survived Jennifer: her family, her friends -- the people who loved her and whom she loved.”
A predominantly Christian nation, the Philippines has come under fire for failing to pass equality and anti-discrimination laws that would provide more protections for gay and transgender people. Anti-discrimination bills have been languishing in the Philippine congress for nearly two decades. The Philippine Supreme Court also nixed a petition on same-sex marriage in the country in September 2019.