MANILA : Five US Marines have been summoned to appear before a prosecutor in the northern Philippines after Filipino police accused one of them of murdering a transgender, the foreign department said.
The Americans were ordered to attend a hearing by the prosecutor of Olongapo city next week in a politically-charged case that threatens to test the longstanding defence ties between Manila and Washington. “The Department of Foreign Affairs... today served the subpoena and complaint against Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton for the murder of Jeffrey Laude also known as Jennifer,” a ministry statement said.
Four other US Marines who were not identified by the statement were summoned by the prosecutor on the same date “as witnesses for the case”.
The prosecutor, Fe de los Santos, later told reporters she will hold the hearing on Tuesday, and not Monday as a foreign department spokesman had mistakenly announced earlier.
The US embassy did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Pemberton and several other marines were detained by their superiors at a US warship docked at the northern port of Olongapo, two hours’ drive from Manila, after witnesses told police Pemberton was the person last seen with the victim late Saturday.
The killing was the second major case in the Philippines in nine years involving a US serviceman.
Laude, 26, was found dead in a hotel bathroom early Sunday, shortly after checking in with the suspect.
Police said the victim was found half-naked on the bathroom floor with more than a dozen bruises, cuts and bite marks. They said the victim had died from “asphyxia by drowning”.
The killing has forced the Philippine government to defend itself from criticism that it was not doing enough to seek justice for the Filipino victim.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs is committed to working with other government agencies in the pursuit of justice,” the statement said Friday.
Pemberton was among more than 3,000 US troops who have taken part in joint military exercises in the Philippines from September 29-October 10.
Next week’s hearing is a regular prosecutorial process to evaluate evidence gathered by police.
After the hearings, which could take days or weeks and also involves quizzing other witnesses, the prosecutor can decide to either file criminal charges in court or dismiss the complaint.
If he is charged with murder and convicted, Pemberton could face life in prison.
The US embassy and the Philippine foreign department building were hit by regular street protests this week, all demanding that the US hand over the suspect to Manila so he could be detained in a Filipino prison.
Both governments agreed earlier this week that the Philippines has jurisdiction over the murder case, under the terms of a 1998 visiting forces agreement.
The accord also gives the US the right to ask for custody of the suspects until the completion of all judicial proceedings.
The murder occurred after the Philippines reached an agreement in March to allows its US military ally wider temporary access to Filipino military facilities.
American forces vacated large US military bases in 1992 as nationalist sentiment rose.
But Manila has sought closer defence ties in recent years in a bid to modernise its armed forces amid tense maritime disputes with China.
In 2006, another US Marine, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2005 rape of a young Filipina he had met in a bar near Olongapo.
The woman recanted her statement in 2009, prompting the court to order Smith’s release.