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MANILA — A United States Marine who was convicted in 2015 of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines has been ordered released, drawing protests from activists.
Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, then 20, was convicted of homicide in the 2014 death of Jennifer Laude, 26. He was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison, which was later reduced to 10, and has since been held at Camp Aguinaldo, the Philippine military headquarters in metropolitan Manila.
The Olongapo City Regional Trial Court granted an appeal from Lance Corporal Pemberton on Tuesday and directed the Bureau of Corrections to release him. The court reasoned that he had served almost six years, including the time between his arrest and conviction, and that combined with a “good conduct time allowance” he had exceeded the 10 years. The Laude family has also received $100,000 in civil damages.
Major Gen. Edgard Arevalo, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said on Wednesday that the military had not yet received a copy of the court order but would comply when it arrived.
Harry Roque, who represented the Laude family during the trial and is now the spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said Lance Corporal Pemberton’s release showed that the United States still exerted strong influence in the Philippines, its former colony and now a key ally in the Asia-Pacific region.
“As former private prosecutor for the Laude family, I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton, who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner,” Mr. Roque said.
The Laude family was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday. Last week, their lawyer, Virginia Suarez, rejected the possibility of an early release for the American.
“His conduct was never put to test as he was living solo and comfortably in his specially made cell,” she told The Philippine Star.
Lance Corporal Pemberton met Ms. Laude in a nightclub in Olongapo City, about 100 miles north of Manila, in October 2014 while he was in the Philippines for joint military exercises. According to closed circuit television footage presented at his trial, they entered a hotel room together but the Marine left alone shortly after. Ms. Laude was later found dead in the room by a hotel worker, who testified that she was slumped over the toilet, apparently with a broken neck.
In his testimony, Lance Corporal Pemberton admitted to choking Ms. Laude and rendering her unconscious but said she had still been breathing when he left. His lawyers argued that Lance Corporal Pemberton had felt “raped” after Ms. Laude performed oral sex on him without disclosing that she was transgender.
The Marine’s trial had complicated relations between the United States and the Philippines, which have a longstanding security alliance that is seen as a counterweight to China’s growing might in the region.
Opponents of American military involvement in the Philippines linked the Pemberton case to the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which sets out the rules for criminal cases involving visiting troops, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed six months before Ms. Laude’s death and made it easier for the United States to bring in thousands of troops for extended rotations.
In recent years, Mr. Duterte has been drifting away from Washington’s embrace in favor of China despite Beijing’s increasingly hostile actions in the South China Sea, where the two countries have territorial disputes. In February, he threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement, though he reversed his stand in June.
Critics of this week’s court decision cited the Visiting Forces Agreement.
“Six years for the brutal killing of a Filipino. Six years for a U.S. serviceman covered by the V.F.A.,” said Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of the left-wing alliance Bayan.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the rights group Karapatan, called the decision “a travesty of justice.”
“This action will go down in the annals of Philippine history as among the most notorious proof that the U.S. continues to trump Philippine sovereignty to this day,” she said.