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Family of transgender woman slain by U.S. Marine in Philippines contests killer’s early release

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton is escorted in 2015 to his detention cell at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines. A court this week ordered his early release for good behavior. (Ted Aljibe/AP)

MANILA — A U.S. Marine convicted of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines will remain behind bars while a court considers an appeal against a decision to release him early, a senior government official said Thursday.

Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton on Tuesday was granted four years off his 10-year homicide sentence for good behavior by a regional trial court in Olongapo, the port city north of Manila where the crime occurred.

The killing of Jennifer Laude drew widespread attention, in part because of the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States and the taboo surrounding sex work. The decision to grant Pemberton early release sparked protests this week and rekindled concerns here about discrimination against the LGBTQ community and U.S. influence in local affairs.

Pemberton met Laude at an Olongapo bar in October 2014 after the Marines arrived for joint military exercises. She was later found dead in a motel room, her head over the toilet. Local media reported that Pemberton, then 19, admitted choking the 26-year-old Laude after discovering she was transgender. He claimed he acted in self-defense, but Laude’s supporters and a police investigation identified his actions as a hate crime.

Pemberton was sentenced in 2015 to six to 12 years in prison, but that was later reduced to 10 years. Laude’s family also received about $95,000 in damages.

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Laude’s relatives have appealed the Olongapo court’s decision to release Pemberton. Virginia Suarez, a lawyer for the family, said Thursday that the court did not inform them that Pemberton had applied for early release, and she argued that he was ineligible because of a lack of proof about his reformed character.

“He never even apologized to the family . . . [yet] he has the nerve to invoke good conduct,” Suarez said.

The Philippine Justice Department and presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who previously served as a lawyer for the Laude family, said Pemberton would not be released while the appeal is underway.

“Our fellow citizen cannot be treated like an animal, with just a slap on the wrist as punishment,” Roque told reporters Thursday. He said the court order went against a recommendation from the prison bureau and that only the executive branch — not the court — could determine credit for good conduct.

Pemberton has spent his sentence in solitary confinement in a Manila military camp rather than in one of the country’s notoriously overcrowded penitentiaries. That arrangement was a result of provisions in the Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral accord that governs procedures involving U.S. military personnel in the Philippines.

Pemberton’s representatives rejected the idea that he was receiving preferential judicial treatment. His lawyer, Rowena Flores, said in an interview that he should have been released in July, based on the Olongapo court’s assessment.

LGBTQ and human rights advocates said the court’s granting of early release was an example of foreign influence over the former U.S. colony and an injustice against transgender people. The LGBTQ community is generally tolerated in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, but an anti-discrimination law sought by activists has languished in the Philippine Congress for years.

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The decision was “among the most notorious proof that the U.S. continues to trump Philippine sovereignty to this day,” human rights group Karapatan said in a statement.

At a protest Thursday, activists and members of the LGBTQ community tied red ribbons at the gates of the Justice Department. Protesters clad in masks held up rainbow flags and signs condemning the Visiting Forces Agreement.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has shifted his country’s foreign policy away from the United States and toward China, previously announced he would terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, but he suspended that plan in June.

The U.S. Embassy did not immediately comment on the court proceedings but indicated it would release a statement later.

The Laude family, according to their lawyer, was devastated by Tuesday’s court decision. Suarez said that good conduct in Pemberton’s case is “not a matter of right — it is privilege.”

“Justice for Jennifer Laude is justice for the entire Filipino people,” she said.

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