He Killed a Transgender Woman in the Philippines. Why Was He Freed?

The news drew protests as the president’s critics took to social media and the streets, organizing demonstrations in Manila to voice their anger at Duterte’s decision. Many members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community thought the president was sending a signal that the Philippine government doesn’t believe that the lives of transgender women are important. “It tells us how, even in our own country, if you are of a particular gender, if you are a transgender woman, your life matters less,” Valmores-Salinas says. “This is about how we are the people that are silenced, that are raped, that are killed first because we are the ones that society listens to last.”

Beyond the question of whether the pardon was an anti-trans reaction by Duterte, it may have also been a strategic move to gain an advantage in relations with the United States. For nearly a century, the United States maintained a large military presence at a series of bases across the Philippines — a period that saw much abuse and violence against Filipina women and girls by American service members. At that time, military personnel were protected from prosecution in Philippine courts under a Status of Forces Agreement; criminal actions, when they were acknowledged, were instead addressed by the U.S. military justice system. In 1991, after years of protests from anti-base campaigners, a volcanic eruption and the end of the Cold War, the Philippine Senate rejected a renewal of the treaty, ending America’s ongoing military presence. But U.S. troops returned eight years later under a new Visiting Forces Agreement and continue to participate in hundreds of joint military exercises every year.

In February, Duterte gave notice that he was terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement, a move that many interpreted as a response to the U.S. State Department revoking the visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa, the former National Police chief widely regarded as the architect of the administration’s notoriously violent war on drugs. Then in June, Duterte confirmed that he wouldn’t be canceling the agreement for at least another six months, and in July, dela Rosa announced that the United States would be reinstating his visa.

Despite Duterte’s outwardly critical stance toward the United States, relations between the two countries remain strong. In August, the U.S. Agency for International Development donated 100 ventilators to the Philippines, as part of more than $22 million in U.S. funding to help the country tackle the novel coronavirus. Days earlier, the State Department approved a $126 million sale of scout, assault and light support boats to the Philippine government. It’s the latest in more than $1.5 billion in arms that Duterte’s administration has moved to purchase from the United States this year, despite calls from Human Rights Watch for Congress to block the sales, citing the Philippine armed forces’ lengthy history of military and human rights abuses.

John Schaus, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Duterte was always likely to take a pragmatic approach to Pemberton’s release. “He’s willing to engage with us, but it’s not his first preference in most situations,” Schaus says. “But when an opportunity presents itself to advance his priorities in a way that is palatable to him, he’s willing to entertain it. He doesn’t strike me as someone who is going to terminate things or cut things off if they’re beneficial to him.” Just months before a general election in the United States, he added, it would make more sense for Duterte to wait to see the outcome before deciding whether to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement.

From a U.S. military perspective, visiting forces agreements (and status of forces agreements in countries where the military is permanently based) are necessary precautions in countries where the United States wants to maintain a strategic presence — including the Philippines, a key player in responding to China’s rising power in the western Pacific. The Visiting Forces Agreement ensures that the two countries have a predetermined process to be followed if a service member is arrested and charged with a crime, when tensions are likely to be high. In Pemberton’s case, Schaus thinks the process proved a success: Pemberton was consistently subject to Philippine law. “Whether or not he should be incarcerated longer or has served an adequate amount of time — the Philippine court system came up with a judgment about that, based on its own internal standards, and I think that’s exactly what the Visiting Forces Agreement would call for,” Schaus says.

Upon leaving the Philippines on Sunday, Pemberton was brought to Camp Smith in Hawaii. “The Marine Corps is taking appropriate administrative action,” Perrine said. He was unable to indicate whether Pemberton will be demoted, or if he will be given a less-than-honorable discharge.


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