EDCA, Olongapo murder, and the old case of Daniel Smith

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The murder of Jennifer Laude in Olongapo City allegedly by an American soldier happened on the weekend before a scheduled meeting that would discuss the expanded agreement to allow United States military presence in the Philippines. 

There can't be a worse timing, officers interviewed by Rappler conceded.

US Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear III met with Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr on Monday, October 13, for an informal meeting that precedes discussions on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) set for Tuesday.

Catapang and Locklear are co-chairmen of the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB), the body tasked to decide the details of the new military-to-military agreement. It allows Americans two new activities: to build military facilities and to preposition defense assets in “agreed locations” that have yet to be determined by the two countries.

Laude's murder happened in Olongapo, the city where the former US Naval Station was located. It is the same naval station that the US military reportedly wants to be included in the "agreed locations" for EDCA.

One of the weakest militaries in Asia, the Philippines is resorting to EDCA as part of its strategy in securing the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea), where tension ocassionally erupts between claimant countries.

The new deal, however, is being contested in the Supreme Court for supposed unconstitutionality. Critics also protest that the deal is lopsided in favor of the Americans. (READ: Solgen to SC: EDCA needed to defend West PH Sea

10 years ago, another US serviceman

The murder also recalls a decade-old case that split public opinion toward Americans in the Philippines. In December 2005, charges were filed against US serviceman Lance Corporal Daniel Smith for allegedly raping "Nicole," a Filipina, inside a moving van while other soldiers were supposedly cheering him on.

A Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll recorded one of the lowest net trust in the US among Filipinos during this period. A December 2005 poll showed a  35% net trust in the US. The Philippine ally currently enjoys a net trust of 76%, based on a March 2014 survey.

Screenshot of SWS survey

Smith and Nicole met in a bar also at the former Subic Bay Naval Station. The US soldier maintained that the sexual act was consensual, but "Nicole" was left lying on the side of the road.

It was the first case to be tried under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a treaty ratified by the Philippine Senate and which allowed the return of the American troops to the Philippines after they were evicted in 1992.

But the bigger issue for women's and rights groups was the custody of Smith and the power of the Philippine laws over erring US servicemen. The Philippine government turned over custody of Smith to the US Embassy, where he remained while the rape case was pending before the Makati City regional trial court and even after the same court convicted him.  

While the rape case was pending in the Makati court, the custody battle was in another battleground, the Supreme Court.

In December 2006, the Makati court would sentence Smith to life imprisonment, saying the victim was “severely intoxicated that night and was deprived of reason to consent to sex and incapable of sensing or fighting off danger.” 

He was held at the Makati jail but was later transferred to the US Embassy. Appeals were filed and it reached the Court of Appeals (CA). 

In February 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the VFA has different provisions for US soldiers under trial and US soldiers who are already convicted by Philippine courts. The High Court said Smith should be detained in a Philippine facility after his conviction by the Makati court.

Smith, however, was not immediately transferred to a Philippine facility. Two months later, in April 2009, the appeals court acquitted Smith, saying that what happened between the serviceman and the woman was "spontaneous, unplanned romantic episode." The ruling was released after "Nicole" submitted a letter recanting her allegations.

US vows cooperation

The same issue hangs as another US servicemen is tagged in the murder in Olongapo City. Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr cautioned against the repeat of the battle over custody of erring US servicemen.

"The Philippine government must assert national sovereignty and jurisdiction over the American soldier. He must not be allowed to leave the country and should be immediately turned over to Philippine authorities for proper investigation and detention," Reyes said.

"Never again to the same circumstances  that marred the Subic rape case. A Filipino was killed. This requires the assertion of our laws. Our government should ensure that justice would be served. Aquino should not junk national interest just because he's eager to implement the EDCA," Reyes added.

The US promised to be cooperative in the investigation. As the story broke Monday morning, the US Embassy immediately issued a statement. "The United States Embassy in Manila expresses its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jeffrey Laude, who was found dead in Olongapo City on October 11. A US Marine has been identified as a possible suspect in the ongoing investigation. The United States will continue to fully cooperate with Philippine law enforcement authorities in every aspect of the investigation."

Later in the afternoon, Locklear also ordered to put on hold the departure of USS Peleliu and USS Germantown, the two ships that carried about 3,000 US sailors and marines for the annual Amphibious Landing Exercise– Rappler.com