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Philippine President Pardons U.S. Marine In Killing Of Transgender Woman

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why would the president of the Philippines pardon a U.S. Marine? President Rodrigo Duterte acted in the case of an American convicted of killing a transgender woman. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that justice may have had little to do with it.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: From the Philippines to Japan, to South Korea, cases of U.S. servicemen abusing local citizens in host countries have generated anger and animosity for decades. This week, President Rodrigo Duterte's absolute pardon of Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MCCARTHY: ...Drew a handful of LGBTQ protesters shouting through their masks, demanding justice for transgender women. Karapatan, an alliance of rights groups, denounced what it calls a double standard of justice. Pemberton has been kept by himself in a facility on a Philippine military base. He's never been in a Philippine jail. Karapatan's Cristina Palabay says the pardon accorded Pemberton has eluded every other jailed Filipino.

CRISTINA PALABAY: No Filipino has been granted that kind of presidential treatment, that kind of presidential special treatment.

MCCARTHY: Lance Corporal Pemberton, then 19, and 26-year-old Jennifer Laude met in a nightclub in 2014. Closed-circuit television video presented at trial showed the two entering a hotel together and Pemberton leaving alone. Laude was found dead, her head slumped over a toilet bowl with a broken neck. Pemberton testified that the two scuffled, that he put her in a headlock, but that she'd been alive when he left the room. A judge convicted Pemberton and sentenced him to six to 10 years. Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, says the fact that Pemberton was arrested and tried in the Philippines reflects positive change in the military partnership in the past two decades.

GREGORY POLING: It is still not a perfect system. And I and, I think, most Filipinos would argue that there is still room for the U.S. to make more concessions.

MCCARTHY: Asserting national sovereignty, the Philippines closed its U.S. bases in the 1990s. Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator, was one of thousands of Americans who has participated in exercises under the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, the legal framework for the temporary stationing of U.S. forces. MIT historian Christopher Capozzola says despite affection for and close cultural ties with Americans, a narrative persists that the military partnership exalts the rights of U.S. soldiers over Filipinos.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZOLA: When there is a controversy, it's often the case that for Americans, this is a brand-new controversy. And for Filipinos, this is yet another instance of a very long history.

MCCARTHY: A Philippine court last week determined that Pemberton had earned early release. Duterte's pardon came days later. Duterte's intervention into Pemberton's case is more about geopolitics than criminal justice. For the past four years, Duterte has often had choice words for Washington as he leaned toward Beijing. But the COVID-19 pandemic is crushing the Philippines. And analysts say Duterte may be angling for access to an American vaccine. Whatever the case for pardoning, MIT's Christopher Capozzola says Pemberton's case brings to the surface the fundamental question of Philippine foreign policy.

CAPOZZOLA: Which is, are we better off with the Americans or without them?

MCCARTHY: Lance Corporal Pemberton is due to be removed from the Philippines next week as an undesirable alien.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.