US Marine accused of murder moved to Philippine military HQ

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Manila (AFP) - A US Marine accused of murdering a transgender woman was moved to the Philippines' military headquarters Wednesday, authorities said, following huge public pressure for him to be taken off an American warship.

The Philippine government said the transfer of Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton was in response to its demands to the United States, as it sought to assure angry critics that he would not receive special treatment.

"I don't think there is any shielding. There is the desire for protection of everybody’s rights, from the victim to everybody who is accused," President Benigno Aquino told reporters shortly after Pemberton was moved.

Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was found lifeless on October 12 in a cheap hotel in the northern city of Olongapo half naked in a bathroom with strangle marks on her neck, according to police.

The cause of death was "asphyxia by drowning", police said.

Pemberton, who had just finished participating in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo, checked into the hotel with Laude and was the last person seen with her, police said.

Pemberton walked out of the hotel alone, police said, but was quickly detained by his US military superiors aboard the USS Peleliu after he was identified as the prime suspect.

Under a Visiting Forces Agreement, Filipino courts have jurisdiction over cases involving US soldiers accused of crimes committed in the Philippines.

But the agreement also allows suspects to remain in US custody, and the United States had kept Pemberton aboard the USS Peleliu as it remained docked at a pier near Olongapo.

- Rising anger -

Laude's family and lawyer, as well as groups critical of the US military presence in the Philippines, were outraged that Pemberton was not being detained by local authorities.

Pemberton then failed to appear Tuesday before Olongapo state prosecutors investigating the murder, heightening concerns by the victim's family over whether the soldier would face justice.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told a Senate committee on Wednesday that he had conveyed his government's demands that Pemberton be detained locally to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Aquino, speaking to reporters, emphasised that the transfer of Pemberton to Camp Aguinaldo, the military headquarters, in Manila showed the United States was cooperating.

"I think they are responding to our needs and our sensitivities," Aquino said.

Police have recommended that Pemberton be charged with murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in jail.

Prosecutors have until mid-December to decide whether he should be charged.

The case has led to a fresh outburst of long-simmering anti-US sentiment in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States.

The United States maintained military bases in the Philippines until 1992, but was forced to close them after the Filipino Senate voted not to renew their leases.

The allies signed an agreement in March allowing a greater US military presence in the Philippines via more of the types of joint exercises in which Pemberton was involved.

Aquino said this week that Laude's death should not impact on the expanding military ties between the allies.

But on Wednesday Aquino said the Philippines was looking at fine-tuning the Visiting Forces Agreement to curb US troops when they head out socially.

"We are trying to do something about it, perhaps (putting) restrictions on where they (American troops) can go, better policing," he said.

Olongapo, where Laude died, has a major red-light district that served the previous US naval base and continues to be patronised by American soldiers during military exercises.

The hotel where Laude's body was found was in the red-light district.

A US Marine was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2006 after being found guilty of raping a young Filipina he met in a bar on Olongapo's outskirts in 2005. But he was acquitted in 2009 when the woman recanted her testimony.

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