A US Marine was found guilty of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines on Tuesday and sentenced to six to 12 years in prison, closing a case that has reignited debate about the American military's presence in its former colony.
The Olongapo City regional trial court also ordered Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton to pay more than 4.5 million pesos ($95,350) to the family of Jennifer Laude, who was found dead last year in a hotel outside a former US navy base northwest of Manila. Pemberton had been charged with murder, but was convicted of the lesser offense of homicide, which does not require malicious intent.
He can appeal against the verdict and sentence. "This is not quite a victory," Laude's sister, Malou, told Reuters. "We expected a murder conviction but instead got homicide. We are not contented with the decision."
Pemberton was in the Philippines in 2014 for joint military exercises. According to testimony at the trial, he met Laude at a nightclub and went back with her to his hotel. At trial, the prosecutors presented video footage that shows the two entering a room together and Pemberton exiting alone a few minutes later.
Laude was found in the hotel room hours later with a broken neck. Pemberton admitted in court to choking — but not killing — Laude. He claimed he acted in self-defense after discovering that the person who was giving him oral sex was transgender.
Pemberton's case has infuriated many in the Philippines, who see it as another example of American servicemen operating with impunity. Protesters outside the Hall of Justice carried placards saying "Justice for Jennifer Laude! Justice for the Filipino people!" and "Jail Pemberton in the Philippines."
During the course of the trial, Pemberton was held in US custody, guarded by American troops in a Philippine military base.
Pemberton was due to be held in the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, south of the capital, until the Philippines and US government agree on where he should serve his sentence as prescribed under a visiting forces agreement.
But Harry Roque, a private attorney working for the Laude family, said there was a dispute with US officials about where Pemberton should go that was resolved when the judge ordered he be held at a Philippine army base for five days while a permanent solution was found.
"This is a sad day for the Philippines," Roque said. "It shows the US gets what it wants."
The case has stirred debate over the presence of American soldiers on Philippine soil after the country's senators voted two decades ago to kick out US bases. At the time, many argued that US soldiers were breaking Philippine laws and operating with impunity. The US acquired the Philippines from Spain after the Spanish–American War of 1898. The Philippines fought a failed war for independence against the US in the following years, and wasn't granted full autonomy until 1946.
The US has increased military aid to the Philippines this year amid rising tensions in the region over China's new assertiveness in the South China Sea.
In April 2014, just six months before Laude's murder, the US and Philippines signed a deal to strengthen their military cooperation. That deal could eventually involve stationing American military ships, planes, and troops inside the Philippines. President Benigno S. Aquino III signed the agreement without the consent of Congress, and its validity is currently being considered by the country's the Supreme Court.
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