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Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte pardons U.S. Marine in murder of transgender woman

Manila — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has granted an absolute pardon to a U.S. Marine convicted in 2015 of killing Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman in the Philippines, the president's spokesman confirmed on Monday.

"It does not mean his conviction is erased," presidential spokesman Harry Roque said of Duterte's decision to pardon Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton. "But what this means is Pemberton is free now and that there is no more question if he is entitled to good conduct time allowances."

Last week a court in Olongapo City, north of Manila and next to a former U.S. naval base, ordered Pemberton's early release after it ruled that the U.S. serviceman had shown good behavior and had therefore served the equivalent of his maximum sentence of 10 years.

The court's decision was met with opposition from various parties, including Laude's family.

Supporters of the late Jennifer Laude hold up her image during a protest near a Philippine court in Olongapo, north of Manila, in a February 23, 2015 file photo. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty

In a statement issued on behalf of the victim's family, attorney Virginia Lacsa Suarez called Duterte's decision to pardon the American Marine, "revolting!"

"We strongly denounce the ABSOLUTE PARDON given by Duterte. This is another injustice not only to Jennifer Laude and family, but a grave injustice to the Filipino people," Suarez said, calling the decision "another hallmark of Philippine's subservience to the U.S." and a reflection of "the systematic discrimination and violence inflicted by U.S. to Filipino women, children and the LGBTQ community."

The government's own Department of Justice had even been in the process of filing a motion to block Pemberton's release when the presidential pardon was announced.  

Before the announcement on Monday, the debate over Pemberton's had centered around whether he was even qualified for early release for good behavior, given that he was kept in solitary detention at a military camp and not in a national prison. That was due to an arrangement in place for American soldiers under the U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement, reached years ago between Washington and Manila.

"The law does not distinguish where a convict is detained, nor does it distinguish between a Filipino, American, or any other nationality," Pemberton's attorney Rowena Garcia-Flores told local radio station DZMM on Monday, referring to the nation's laws governing early prisoner release.

She added that she had not applied for a presidential pardon on Pemberton's behalf.

Duterte's move effectively cut short all the discussions about his eligibility for release, and for that matter, the judicial process itself.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a speech at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, in this March 12, 2020 file photo. RTVM via AP

During a Monday evening cabinet meeting that was aired live on TV, Duterte said he was not favoring anyone, but merely being fair.

"We should allow him the good character presumption, because there was never a complaint of him going berserk," Duterte said.

His remarks stood in sharp contrast to comments from his spokesman just a few days earlier.

"I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton, who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner," said Roque, who previously served as a private prosecutor working for the Laude family, before going to work for Duterte.

The court that backed Pemberton's appeal for early release was the same that found him guilty of killing Laude in October 2014. 

Security camera video showed Pemberton and Laude checking into a hotel together, but only Pemberton left. The Marine admitted choking Laude in a rage after discovering that she was transgender, but claimed in his testimony that she was still breathing when he left. His lawyers argued that Pemberton felt "raped" when he realized Laude was transgender.

The crime occurred just six months after the Philippines and the United States signed a military agreement allowing the rotational presence of more U.S. troops in the Philippines.

Duterte had sought in recent years to pivot away from the long-standing alliance between the two countries in favor of a closer relationship with China. He even started the process of terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement.

But then he backpedalled, without much explanation, in June. Activists say Duterte's decision to pardon Pemberton reflects a desire to keep the world's biggest superpower sweet.

"So much for claims of having an independent foreign policy," said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the left-wing political organization Bayan. "The U.S. government had its way again on this issue."

Philippine human rights organization Karapatan also denounced the pardon, calling it "a despicable and shameless mockery of justice and servility to U.S. imperialist interests."

"While human rights defenders, activists, government critics and ordinary folks are being arrested and jailed for all sorts of fabricated and flimsy charges, while elderly and sickly prisoners continue to be denied humanitarian release amid a deadly pandemic, Duterte has granted absolute pardon to a transphobic murderer, who has not shown an iota of remorse for his brutal crime," Karapatan said in a statement Monday. 

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