MANILA (AFP) – Philippine authorities launched criminal proceedings Wednesday against a US Marine accused of murdering a transgender Filipino in a case that has sparked anti-American protests.
Police referred their case to prosecutors recommending that Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton be charged with murder, Olongapo city police spokeswoman Inspector Michelle Depano said.
The US embassy did not immediately respond to AFP’s requests for comment.
Prosecutors now have to decide if there is sufficient evidence to try Pemberton –a process that can take weeks. If tried and convicted, Pemberton could face life in jail.
“I think we have sufficient evidence to sustain the charge of murder,” Harry Roque, a lawyer representing the family of the victim told local television network ABS-CBN.
Pemberton, assigned to a Marine unit based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was identified by a witness as the last person seen with the victim on Saturday night, according to police.
Pemberton has been detained by US authorities near the northern city of Olongapo aboard a US ship that took part in joint military exercises involving 3,500 US troops that ended last week.
The murder victim, Jeffrey Laude, was found dead in an Olongapo hotel room in the early hours of Sunday.
The killing came amid talks aimed at raising the American military presence in the Philippines – a key Asian ally that is also embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
Earlier Wednesday, Filipino officials took pains to portray the murder as an “isolated incident” that should not be allowed to derail ties with Washington.
The Philippine military has been boosting its ties with the United States, with which it has a mutual defence treaty, as part of efforts to upgrade its defence capabilities.
“We call on all concerned not to lose sight of the bigger picture and to look at these (defence ties) as different issues,” Philippine defence department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said in a statement.
“This is an isolated incident, albeit a tragic one.”
“If we don’t have assistance, we will never develop our capabilities,” he said.
In March, the Philippines and the United States signed a new accord that would allow American troops greater access to Philippine facilities in support of US President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.
However, the construction of facilities to house the temporary US military presence has been held up by a legal challenge.
About 100 left-wing protesters staged a rally outside the foreign department on Wednesday, demanding Manila take custody of Pemberton.
Another protest was held outside the US embassy on Tuesday.
Manila has said it will seek to take Pemberton into custody once charges are filed in court.
Under a visiting forces agreement signed in 1998, the Philippines has jurisdiction over crimes committed by US forces unrelated to the training exercises.