Saturday, January 28, 2006

Disagreement over interpretation of 4 words in VFA

A MERE four words in the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement spelled a "difference of opinion" between Filipino and American diplomats who deliberated on the Philippine government's request for custody of the four US Marines charged with raping a Filipino woman last Nov. 1.

The disagreement stemmed from whether the VFA provision granting US authorities custody of the accused "if they so request" was fully complied with, according to Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gilberto Asuque.

"We pointed out that there should have been a formal written request first, while their (the Americans') view was that it need not be formal," Asuque disclosed yesterday at a briefing when pressed for details on how the negotiation went.

"There was a difference of opinion," he said.

According to earlier reports quoting the US Embassy's Matthew Lussenhop, American authorities made a "verbal request" to unspecified Philippine officials on the night the four servicemen were accosted at the Subic Bay free port.

Reached yesterday, Lussenhop maintained: "That evening, there were a number of officials from the US Embassy, the Philippine National Police and the SBMA (Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority). A request was made then."

The VFA provision in question is in Section 6, Article 5: "The custody of any US personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with the US military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings."

Ironic twist

It was the same provision the US Embassy cited on Monday when it turned down the Philippine government's Nov. 16 request to gain custody of the accused on grounds that the alleged rape was an "extraordinary case."

In an ironic twist, the Philippine government ended up being the party making a "request" for custody -- the term the DFA has been using when referring to its diplomatic note to the US mission.

On hindsight, a DFA official said the SBMA authorities should primarily be blamed for the government's loss in the two-month-long custody battle.

"Had they waited for the DFA's or the DoJ's (Department of Justice's) views on the matter, we could have denied the US request right there and then," the official, who asked not to be named, wryly noted. (INQ7)

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