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'Despicable and Shameless': Outrage Over Duterte Pardon of US Marine who Murdered Trans Woman in Philippines

Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton was found guilty of homicide and sentenced in December 2015 to 10 years in prison for strangling and drowning 26-year-old Jennifer Laude to death in an Olongapo hotel. 

Protesters in Manila burn a homemade U.S. flag following the killing of transgender woman Jennifer Laude by U.S. Marine Scott Pemberton on October 11, 2014. (Photo: J. Gerard Seguia/Pacific Press/Getty Images)

Protesters in Manila burn a homemade American flag in response to the killing of 26-year-old transgender woman Jennifer Laude by U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Pemberton on October 11, 2014. (Photo: J. Gerard Seguia/Pacific Press/Getty Images)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte sparked international outrage Monday by issuing a full pardon to Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine convicted of murdering Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman, in 2014.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted on Monday that "to do justice" Duterte "has granted an absolute pardon to Pemberton," who was found guilty of homicide in December 2015 in connection with the killing of 26-year-old Laude the previous October. 

A court in Olongapo had ordered the release of Pemberton, age 25, on September 3. However, Duterte's office blocked the release, accusing the court of "judicial overreach." 

In a Monday television address, Duterte asserted that Pemberton "should be allowed the good character presumption" because he had behaved well behind bars. The president said he told his justice minister, Menardo Guevarra, that he had "not treated Pemberton fairly." 

"So I will release him," Duterte said. 

"There is so much disrespect in the manner in which Jennifer was killed, reflective of the disrespect the U.S. has for the Philippines' democracy and sovereignty."
—Virgie Suarez

Virgie Suarez, a lawyer for Laude's family, blasted the pardon as "revolting" and "a mockery of our judiciary and legal system," according to the Washington Post. 

"There are too many Filipino convicts, already in their twilight years, serving their sentences," Suarez said. "Why [pardon] a foreigner, a U.S. soldier who committed an atrocious crime?" 

"There is so much disrespect in the manner in which Jennifer was killed, reflective of the disrespect the U.S. has for the Philippines' democracy and sovereignty," she added. 

The case rekindled memories of the many crimes committed—often with impunity—by U.S. troops in the Philippines over the decades, including the Subic Bay rape case of 2005, in which Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith raped a Filipina woman while other Marines watched. Smith was found guilty but was transfered from Philippines to U.S. custody under controversial Visiting Forces Agreement. 

Pemberton, then a 19-year-old lance corporal, was one of hundreds of U.S. troops participating in joint training exercises with their Filipino allies and was on shore leave in Olongapo on October 11, 2014 when he met Laude at a disco bar. A friend of Laudes' who was with her and Pemberton on the night she was killed told a court that the Marine was drunk but friendly, and that he "thought we were 'real women.'"  

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According to court records, the pair went to a hotel room, where an argument occurred after Pemberton discovered Laude had male genitals.

The young Marine left the hotel 30 minutes after checking in. Staff later found Laude's naked body with her head in a toilet and signs of strangulation. Local media reported that Pemberton admitted to choking Laude, but that he acted in self defense and that she was alive when he left the hotel room. Used condoms with Pemberton's fingerprints were found at the scene. 

Pemberton was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with the court citing mitigating circumstances including Laude not revealing her gender identity. However, after Monday's decision he will be freed after serving just six years of his sentence after his application for a Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) was approved on September 1. He has been serving out his sentence in solitary confinement at a Filipino military prison in Quezon City. 

Duterte's pardon has once again stoked outrage among Filipinos who believe that U.S. troops who commit crimes in their country receive special treatment under the Visiting Forces Agreement. Duterte had previously announced he would terminate the agreement; however, he reversed course in June, with human rights advocates accusing him of bending to U.S. pressure and interests. 

The human rights group Karapatan condemned the pardon as "a despicable and shameless mockery of justice and servility to U.S. imperialist interests."

"We've said it before, we'll say it again," tweeted the LGBTQ advocacy group Bahaghari. "For as long as the U.S. maintains hegemony over our military, economy, and politics, there will be no #JusticeForJennifer and for Filipino LGBTQ+"

Stars and Stripes reports the case has led to calls from some Filipinos to end the U.S. military presence in a nation that was once a U.S. colony.

As Common Dreams reported at the time, there were widespread protests calling for a U.S. withdrawal following Laude's death in 2014. Although the U.S. no longer maintains bases in the archipelago nation, there are still hundreds of American troops "advising and assisting" the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the fight against militant groups as part of the ongoing 19-year so-called "war on terror." U.S. troops also visit the Philippines and participate in regular joint military exercises with their AFP counterparts and troops from other regional allies. 

Duterte, who has drawn worldwide criticism and condemnation for his many human rights violationsclaims to have "cured" himself of being gay with "the help of beautiful women." He has also appointed a transgender woman, Dindi Tan, as the country's director of agrarian reform. 

"Call Her Ganda," a documentary film about Laude directed by PJ Raval, was a finalist for best documentary feature at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. 

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