Aquino defends VFA post-Laude murder

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will not be abrogated despite increased calls from critics to scrap the agreement after the murder of transgender woman Jennifer Laude by a United States Marine.

Laude, a Filipino, was allegedly killed by Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, a US soldier who was visiting under the VFA, 

On Monday, October 20, on the sidelines of the 70th anniversary of the Leyte landing, Aquino defended the VFA and said Laude’s death should not affect the agreement.

The VFA, an agreement between the Philippine and the United States governments, allows the rotation of US troops in the Philippines, including the entry and movement of US assets. 

"Bakit natin kailangan i-abrograte 'yung VFA (Why would we need to abrogate the VFA?) I mean, name me any place that doesn’t have crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don’t think so," Aquino said.

"So, ang importante dito, mayroong krimen na nangyari, kunin lahat nung ebidensiyang magpapatunay na ang salarin ang may kasalanan dito, at magkaroon tayo ng katarungan." (The important thing here is that a crime transpired, let us get all the evidence that proves who commited the crime, and find justice)

Aquino also said Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg are discussing custody matters relating to Pemberton and "are working on resolving this issue."

"At the very least [they are] making sure, based on the treaty again, that he is available or the suspects are available for both investigation in any and all judicial processes," the President said.

Goldberg too defended the VFA. A day earlier, Goldberg said in his Twitter account that "the VFA helped close coordination between the United States and Philippine authorities in investigating Jennifer Laude's case."

Article V, Paragraph 6 of the VFA states: “The custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with the United States military authorities, if they so request.”

Activists have again questioned the constitutionality of the VFA – as it did a few years ago when US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was convicted of raping Filipina Suzette Nicolas, initially identified by the media as "Nicole," in Subic. (READ: EDCA, Olongapo murder, and the old case of Daniel Smith)

Back then, the Philippine government turned over custody of Smith to the US Embassy, where he remained while his case was pending before the Makati City court and even after the same court had convicted and sentenced him to 40 years. Smith flew back to the United States after he was acquitted 3 years later by the Court of Appeals.

Stronger alliance

In his speech, Aquino praised the United States for its continued alliance with the Philippines, and called for strengthening the two country’s relationship anew.

“Let us renew our commitment to the strong and enduring friendships between the Philippines and its wartime allies, and perhaps most meaningfully, the countries that were once its foes,” he said.

“Today, we are bound by the determination to help each other, to echo General MacArthur’s own words, ‘For our homes and hearts, for future generations of our sons and daughters,’ and in the name of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice so many years ago.”

Aquino also thanked the United States and Japan for their assistance after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

“Through these friendships, we saw, just last year, vessels bearing the proud names of those that had fought at Leyte Gulf, once more journeying to the Philippines: Ise from Japan, Washington and Denver from America,” he said.

“Seventy years ago, ships with these names engaged in battle, seeking to eliminate the threat of the other; last November, they came here as partners, to demonstrate their unity with the Filipino people at a time of such massive loss and tragedy.”

Goldberg too vowed that the United States’ commitment to the Philippines is unwavering and remains to be "iron-clad," as emphasized by US President Barack Obama during his visit to the Philippines last April.

The event commemorated the October 20, 1944, landing of General Douglas MacArthur in Palo, Leyte, despite heavy defensive by the Japanese in Leyte Gulf. Three days after Aquino returned to the Philippines as promised, the Philippine Commonwealth was restored at the Leyte Provincial Capitol.

Kerry on Laude murder

“With respect to the Marine, whatever charges there are, whatever infractions have been affected by any American anywhere, we believe in the rule of law, and we believe in our agreement,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, October 20, in Indonesia.

Kerry commented on the Laude murder case before meeting with Del Rosario.

“It is very important for our agreements to be upheld. It is very important for the rule of law to be upheld, for his rights to be protected, but for the process to unfold appropriately,” Kerry said.

“And we will, indeed, uphold our agreements with our friends in the Philippines; they deserve nothing less. The people of the Philippines who are gracious enough to permit an arrangement whereby we meet mutual interests with this kind of a force's presence need to know that we're not seeking a special privilege, that everybody's rights will be appropriately protected. And that's exactly what we will do here. Due process will play out, and we will work with the Philippines in order to make certain that rule of law and the agreement are upheld,” he added.