MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is reviewing “ambiguous” provisions in its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States in the light of debate over which country should have custody of the American soldier who is accused of killing a Filipino in Olongapo City.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said on Thursday, October 23, that the executive branch is reviewing the “not so clear provisions” in the VFA, among them the issue of custody and the interpretations of the “certification of official duty.”
“There are provisions where the Philippine and US sides have differing interpretations, that’s why we have to have implementing guidelines,” De Lima said at a press conference.
On Wednesday, US Marine Private First Class Joseph Pemberton, the primary suspect in the murder of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude, was transferred from USS Peleliu in Subic to Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
De Lima said on Wednesday that the transfer to was already an indication that the Philippines already has custody over the soldier. Her position, however, contradicted the statements of Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario and the US embassy that, under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), his legal custody remains with the US despite his being detained in Philippine military grounds.
On Thursday, De Lima clarified that while the Philippines is moving to clarify guidelines in implementing the military agreement with the US, it isn’t necessarily open to amending the treaty, which was ratified in 1999.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who is leading a Senate probe into the Olongapo murder case and its effects on the military agreement, has renewed her call to scrap the VFA. She cited the “gross disparity” in the provisions of jurisdiction and custody.
On Wednesday, she hit the provision in the agreement that grants the Philippines jurisdiction over US servicemen accused of crimes, but gives the US custody over them. (READ: ‘VFA is a failure’ – Miriam)
The US ambassador to the Philippines, however, defended the VFA, claiming it helps in investigating Pemberton.
“The VFA is what allowed this investigation to be as quick and successful, because our criminal investigators participated with the PNP to identify a suspect, to be able to identify witnesses, to cooperate and collaborate, because we’re friends and allies,” Ambassador Philip Goldberg told GMA News in a live interview on Thursday.
De Lima also the custody issue remains premature even with Pemberton’s transfer to Camp Aguinaldo under US security.
“The transfer is just preparatory. The case is still in the preliminary investigation stage where he cannot be detained or jailed yet. The issue of custody will only come in when the case is already filed in court and an arrest warrant is issued – assuming that probable cause will be found in the preliminary investiagtion,” the justice secretary said. – Rappler.com