MANILA, Philippines — A U.S. Marine convicted in the 2014 killing of a transgender Filipino woman will remain behind bars while her family and the government appeal a Philippine court order allowing his early release for good behavior, an official said Thursday.
The Regional Trial Court in Olongapo city northwest of Manila on Tuesday ordered Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton released early from his six to 10 year sentence for the killing of Jennifer Laude, prompting the woman’s family to protest and appeal.
The court order has rekindled perceptions that American military personnel who run afoul of Philippine laws can get special treatment under the allies’ Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides the legal framework for the temporary visits of U.S. forces in the country for large-scale combat exercises.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who used to serve as one of the Laude family’s lawyers, said government officials cannot work on Pemberton’s release until the court has ruled on the appeal of the Laude family. Roque said the government is preparing a separate appeal of its own.
“Our compatriot cannot be treated like an animal then the punishment will just be a tap on the wrist,” Roque said at a regular news conference Thursday.
On Wednesday, Roque said that Pemberton’s “light penalty” showed that “Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials in our country.”
A group of protesters rallied outside the Department of Justice in Manila on Thursday, displaying placards that showed Pemberton’s mugshot. Another placard read: “Trans lives matter.”
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Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the country in 2014.
He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercises and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a city known for its nightlife outside Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base.
Laude was later found dead, her head slumped in a toilet bowl in a motel room, where witnesses said she and Pemberton had checked in. A witness told investigators that Pemberton said he choked Laude after discovering she was transgender.
In December 2015, a judge convicted Pemberton of homicide, not the more serious charge of murder that prosecutors sought. The Olongapo court judge said at the time that she downgraded the charge because factors such as cruelty and treachery had not been proven.
Pemberton has been serving his sentence in a compound jointly guarded by Philippine and American security personnel at the main military camp in metropolitan Manila. The place of detention was agreed to under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement, although Laude’s family had demanded that he be held in an ordinary jail.
Pemberton’s lawyer, Rowena Garcia Flores, said his detention was shortened by authorities under a Philippine law that allows the reduction of prison terms for good conduct. A lawyer for the Laude family, Virginia Suarez, said the law cannot apply to Pemberton, who has been detained alone in a military camp and given other special privileges under the VFA.
The case has led to calls from some in the Philippines to end the U.S. military presence in the country, a former American colony that is a major non-NATO ally with which Washington also has a mutual defense treaty.
Associated Press journalists Aaron Favila and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.