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US Marine accused of murder in Philippines. A blow to Obama's Asia pivot? (+video)

Philippine authorities want to question five US service personnel over the death of a transexual in a hotel room. The US recently upgraded its military alliance with the Philippines in the face of perceived Chinese maritime aggression.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has rejected calls to end a military agreement with the United States amid growing public anger over a murder case allegedly involving a US Marine.

Filipino prosecutors have charged Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton with killing Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipino whose previous name was Jeffrey, during shore leave. US officials have so far refused to hand over Pfc. Pemberton to Philippine police, sparking a renewed debate over the US military presence in the Southeast Asian nation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that "the killing occurred at a sensitive moment for US-Philippine relations." As the US tries to shift its foreign policy focus towards Asia, the Philippines is one of its longest and closest allies in the region – and one that’s struggling to assert itself against an assertive China.

In April, the US signed a new 10-year security pact with the Philippines that allows for thousands of US troops to be stationed there on a rotating basis. The Philippines phased out permanent US military bases in the early 1990s. A subsequent bilateral accord, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), allows US troops to conduct drills in the Philippines.

Under the VFA, the US is permitted to maintain custody over American soldiers accused of breaking Filipino law. The agreement says the Philippines can prosecute US soldiers, but that the US has custody over them until the end of judicial proceedings, the AP reports.

US authorities told the Associated Press that they were cooperating in the investigation of Pemberton. They’ve ordered the assault ship that Pemberton is on to remain in port until  the investigation is completed; the ship is moored at Subic Bay Freeport, 50 miles northwest of Manila. According to Marine Corps. Times, Pemberton is a member of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, which is based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The US Embassy in Manila said the four witnesses have already met with prosecutors, the AP reports. "The United States continues to fully cooperate and collaborate with Philippine authorities in all aspects of the case," the embassy said in a statement.

Ms. Laude died on the night of Oct. 11 in a hotel room in Olongapo, a city near the port. Police told reporters that the victim was discovered with neck injuries in the room’s bathroom, adding that she had died from “asphyxia by drowning.” 

On Friday, Olongapo prosecutors summoned Mr. Pemberton and four soldiers to appear Tuesday as part of a preliminary investigation. The Manila Bulletin, a popular English-language paper, reported that Pemberton and his team of Filipino lawyers had still not decided whether he would attend.

Left-wing and LBGT (Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender) activists have called on the government to terminate the VFA if the US doesn’t hand over Pemberton. Protests broke out in Manila, Olopago, and Subic Bay over the weekend. 

President Aquino appears unlikely to capitulate to the protesters' demands. On Monday, he reaffirmed his commitment to the VFA while talking to reporters on the central island of Leyte.

“Why do we need to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement?" he said, according to Reuters. "I mean, name me any place that doesn't have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don't think so. What is important is there was a crime, we should gather all evidence to prove the guilt and justice will be served."

Pemberton’s case is not without precedent. In 2005, a US Marine was accused of raping a Filipino woman in Subic Bay. A Philippine court initially convicted the solider and sentenced him to life in prison before a higher court reversed the decision, igniting anti-US protests.

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