The issue that we have been trying to address with the Jennifer Laude case is one of accountability. Will a US Marine, normally exempt from jurisdiction of the Philippines, be sent to Muntinlupa in case he is proven guilty of murder?
If we go by the Daniel Smith incident, the answer would be no. Smith, despite having been found guilty by a trial court, was absolved after the victim issued an affidavit of recantation. Nicole, Smith’s victim, is now residing in the United States. This means that outside of a possible monetary settlement, it was ultimately the US government that offered the visa in exchange for the recantation.
What is the lesson learned from the Daniel Smith incident? That the US government will simply not surrender its soldiers to any foreign government no matter what crime they may have committed.
Much of course has been said about the fact that the constitutionality of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been upheld twice by the Philippine Supreme Court, but always with strong dissent from the acknowledged heavyweights in the Court. In both instances, our Supreme Court upheld its validity because it is not for them to decide the domestic requirements in order that the VFA should have the force and effect of law in the United States. That, according to our Supreme Court, is not its concern. In so doing, they brushed away the rationale for the constitutional requirement that the presence of foreign troops, facilities and bases in the country should only be pursuant to a treaty duly recognized by the other contracting party as such.
What is this rationale?
Under International Law, the acts of foreign troops in a foreign jurisdiction are absolutely immune from local jurisdiction. The latest case in this regard is that of Germany v. Italy. There, an Italian made to work against his will in a German munitions factory during World War II sued Germany before Italian courts for damages arising from his forced labor. The Italian courts granted him damages and proceeded to execute against the Goethe Institute, the German Cultural Office. Germany filed suit in the International Court of Justice. The Court ruled in favor of Germany and ruled that acts committed by German troops during World War II are absolutely immune from Italian domestic jurisdiction. It also ruled that diplomatic assets of the Goethe are also immune from execution.
This is the reason why the Constitution requires that presence of foreign troops and bases here should only be pursuant to a treaty. This is the only way around the absolute immunity of foreign troops in our country: if the US agrees to the exercise of local jurisdiction. Theoretically, the VFA is evidence that the US government has agreed that ordinary crimes committed by its troops while in pursuit of the VFA will be subject to the primary jurisdiction of the Philippines. This is to ensure that the US cannot claim immunity for common crimes committed by its troops.
The infirmity of the VFA hence in not having been concurred in by the US Senate is that this waiver of immunity does not have the force and effect of law in the US. This is because their legislative branch of their government, through the US Senate, did not give its concurrence to the agreement.
This in turn is why the Laude family now doubt if they can hold PFC Joseph Scott Pemberton criminally liable for murder. As of now, he is still in the custody of the US and hence, beyond the reach of Philippine jurisdiction. This has very practical ramifications: without custody over Pemberton, the Philippine National Police has not been able to subject him to custodial interrogation in connection with their investigation of the murder. In fact, because he has not been made available to Philippine authorities, we do not even have the basics of physical evidence from Pemberton such as thumb prints and buccal samples for DNA. Worse, since he was never in our custody, we have not had the opportunity to conduct a physical examination of his body to see if there is any physical evidence that Jennifer attempted to defend herself when she was attacked.
But ultimately, it was the Nicole precedent that has disparaged the family. Remember that Smith was found guilty but got away as a result of a compromise, the juiciest part of which were the US visas for Nicole and her family provided by the United States government.
This was the frame of mind of the Laude family and Jennifer’s fiance, Marc, when we descended on Camp Aguinaldo last Wednesday. As a lawyer, I deemed that the family has the right to ensure that Pemberton was indeed in Aguinaldo and the right to ask him basic questions such as why he murdered their loved one. This forms part of their right to satisfaction under human rights law. The fact that the sister Malou and Marc climbed over the fence came as a complete surprise. In reality, Malou is on the verge of losing hope, what with the entire machinery of the Philippine government, with the exception of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, espousing the alleged rights of Pemberton and justifying the existence of the VFA. Marc, on the other hand, followed Malou after he was enraged to have seen the US Marines guarding the premises laughing at Malou and the family. Any other reasonable person would have felt the same rage. What is unacceptable is the kind of rage expressed by Pemberton that led to the murder of Jennifer.
Jennifer will be laid to rest today. There will be a mass and neurological service at 2 pm at Columban Church in West Pinlac, Olongapo City. Her remains will then be laid to rest in Heritage Memorial Park.
All Filipinos, including members of the AFP, should condole with the Laude family. For unless the VFA is abrogated, we could be its next victims.
This post first appeared in http://manilastandardtoday.com/2014/10/24/on-laude-the-issue-is-accountability/ on October 24, 2014.