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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Senators Call for Review of VFA After Filipino Transgender's Killing

At least two senators – Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero –yesterday called separately for a review of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States following the killing of 26-year-old Filipino transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude allegedly by a US Marine in Olongapo City last weekend.
Santiago, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said she will conduct an inquiry into the case on Oct. 22, two days after the Senate resumes its sessions next week.
The senator said the timing of the alleged crime is horrendous, because it came just after the joint military exercises between the two countries, and just before American and Filipino military leaders met last Tuesday for discussions on the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
She also acknowledged that a review of the VFA may not be easy at this time for the Philippines, which is currently locked in a territorial dispute with China.
Santiago warned the Aquino administration that it has to brace for tough negotiations with US officials on the matter especially if it wants to insist on automatic jurisdiction of criminal cases that happen in the Philippines, which she said is stipulated under the bilateral treaty.
“Our problem actually is this: The Philippines is one of the weakest militaries in Southeast Asia, and China is making growling noises.  That is the real core of this problem,” Santiago said in an interview after her speech at the Women’s Celebration of Life and Faith at the Philippine Christian University in Manila.
“President (Benigno) Aquino (III) will have an extremely tough time, that I hesitate to pass judgment on him at this time. It’s very easy to say we’ll uphold Philippine sovereignty and raise the Philippine flag, but the thing is we have nothing to defend ourselves with should China ever make a move beyond what it has done so far to claim the West Philippine Sea,” Santiago said.
“What if China attacks us or it makes an overt move, instead of just landing on certain rocks there or constructing something that they claim to be temporary. Supposed they go beyond that? What are we going to do if they make an enemy of the US at this time? That’s why I’m bewailing that this is the wrong time for this accident to happen,” she pointed out.
For his part, Escudero said there is an urgent need for the Legislative Oversight Committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement (LOVFA) to convene and revisit the agreement.
Escudero, chairman of the Senate finance committee, said police and prosecutors involved in the Laude’s case should act swiftly as the LOVFA states that there should be a court decision in one year from the time the case is filed.
The LOVFA is chaired by Santiago and the vice chairman is Sen. Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, who is chairman of the Senate national defense committee. The seven committee members come from the House of Representatives. 

Harry Roque, an expert in international law, warned  that failure by a Philippine court to make a decision on the case of the suspect, Joseph Pemberton, a US Marine, in a one-year trial period means that the accused  (Pemberton) can go home back to the US.
Sen. Loren Legarda, vice chairman of the Senate national defense committee, wants the Philippine government to give justice to the family of Laude and do all it can to convict whoever killed Laude.
She also expressed optimism that the US government  would give its full cooperation to resolve the Laude case.
The family of Laude demanded for a speedy resolution of the case as they wanted Pemberton tried before a Philippine court.
Escudero said this is an opportunity for the committee to hear his calls for an in-depth study on a LOVFA, particularly on a provision that the US government can have custody of any member of the US military involved in joint Philippine-US military exercises who would be linked to a crime committed in the Philippines.
Malacañang said yesterday the government has no plan to scrap the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States despite the Olongapo killing.
Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda affirmed that the government would still pursue EDCA which, he said, seeks to enhance the country’s defense capability and disaster response.
Lacierda said EDCA should be viewed separately from the Laude slay case.
The military agreement, signed during the visit of US President Barack Obama in Manila last April, provides US greater access to Philippine military camps. The two sides are presently discussing the rules and regulations that will implement EDCA.
For his part, Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. also assured that the government will continue to uphold and protect the national interest in all matters related to EDCA.
“As we know, there is a question that has been raised before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the EDCA. And as you know also, for the EDCA to be fully effective, there will have to be specific implementing rules and regulations, and that is still an ongoing process. The drafting of such implementing rules is still an ongoing process,” Coloma said.
Meanwhile, Gabriela party-list Rep. Emmi de Jesus yesterday demanded a more “patriotic” stance from the Aquino administration regarding Laude’s death.
De Jesus said she was enraged at the “weak” explanation given by Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Spokesperson Charles Jose to the family of the victim in Olongapo City as to how the VFA applies in the case.
According to De Jesus, Jose told the grieving family that the Philippine-US pact is silent on the Philippines having the right to take custody of accused US servicemen.
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