Saturday, April 29, 2006

Judge won’t downgrade Subic rape raps; GIs won’t enter plea

By Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star

The Makati City regional trial court threw out yesterday a Department of Justice motion to reduce the charges against three of the four Marines accused of raping a 22-year-old Filipino woman last year, keeping all of them detained as principal defendants in the case.

The four Marines were arraigned in court yesterday in a case that sparked anti-US sentiments, including calls for the scrapping of a 1999 defense treaty between the Philippines and the United States.

Judge Benjamin Pozon, following legal procedure, entered a plea of not guilty on their behalf when the four American servicemen refused to enter a plea.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez last week said he found no conspiracy surrounding the alleged rape and said authorities should keep only one Marine as the principal defendant — Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith — who could face capital punishment, and the three others as accessories, who could face up to 20 years in prison.

Pozon said he could not allow the downgrading of the charges "on the basis of the evidence not yet presented" to the court.

Pozon also said the move by Gonzalez "not only asks for the disregard of the requirements of due process but also tends to erode the court’s independence."

Gonzalez maintained his position that there was no conspiracy among the four Marines to rape the woman but will not appeal the judge’s decision, which he said could prolong the case if defense lawyers make an appeal.

"I don’t think there is any evidence of that. If there was an iota that could make them principals, I would not have hesitated," he told a press briefing.

Private prosecutor Evalyn Ursua, who opposed the Department of Justice’s motion to amend the charges against the Marines, said the prosecution was "happy" about the decision.

John Coluso, whose law firm represents one of the three Marines, said the defense panel could request the judge to reconsider his decision or immediately ask the Court of Appeals to overturn it.

Smith, and his alleged co-conspirators — Lance Cpl. Keith Silkwood, Lance Cpl. Dominic Duplantis and Staff Sgt. Chad Carpentier — entered the packed courtroom in civilian clothes accompanied by several Americans believed to be US Embassy staff.

They showed no overt reaction as four Filipino women shouted "Shame, Shame On You" outside the courtroom. Several dozen leftwing Filipino protesters staged an anti-US picket outside the courthouse.

The Marines, who have been in custody of the US Embassy, sat on a bench on the left side of the room facing the judge.

The rape victim’s mother arrived with a woman whose head was covered with a bandanna, partly obscuring her face. It was unclear if the woman was the victim.

Journalists and photographers, who were not allowed inside the courtroom, had to peer through glass panels to see inside.

About two dozen members of left-leaning women’s rights group Gabriela picketed the courthouse, with placards saying, "Justice for Nicole," "Jail the Yankees," and "Rage Against Rape."

The woman, whose real name has not been publicly disclosed, has been identified only as "Nicole."

Malacañang does not expect the rape case to strain relations with Washington, Manila’s closest ally.

"Our cooperation with each other should not be affected by the case," Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor told reporters yesterday. "What’s important is that there is a legal process that addresses the case and it is proceeding."

Defensor accompanied President Arroyo at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City yesterday to receive a C-130 military cargo plane from US Ambassador Kristie Kenney who, in behalf of Washington, turned over the airplane to the Philippine Air Force.

The four Marines belong to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and had finished counterterrorism maneuvers with Philippine troops in Zambales.

They were on shore leave when the alleged rape occurred on Nov. 1 inside a van at the former US Subic naval base close to Olongapo City after the woman went with one of the soldiers on a bar-hop.

The soldiers had insisted only one of them had sex with her and that the act was consensual.

The rape case sparked angry calls for the scrapping of the Visiting Forces Agreement, a 1999 accord allowing large-scale US military exercises in the country.

It also allows American troops charged with crimes to remain in US custody until legal proceedings are completed.

The case is seen as a black mark on US military exercises that have been credited with helping weaken al-Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Philippines.

The Philippine government sought custody of the Marines after an Olongapo City regional trial court issued warrants for their arrest.

The case was later transferred to Makati when the Olongapo court judge recused himself from the case following questions about his impartiality.

Washington rejected Manila’s request for custody, invoking the VFA. However, the US decision infuriated many, including several lawmakers, and set off small but noisy anti-US street protests.

In January, a congressional committee recommended that President Arroyo — a staunch US ally in the war on terrorism — abrogate the VFA.

The joint congressional panel approved a resolution authored by Sen. Miriam Santiago calling for the termination of the accord to enable the Philippines to renegotiate a new agreement.

The resolution must be approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives before it can go to Mrs. Arroyo for her approval or veto.

It, however, did not get past Congress. Lawmakers in favor of the accord had warned against making a rush to judgment, arguing that scrapping it could compromise the country’s security.

Maita Santiago, secretary general of the left-wing group, Migrante, said they are seeking the scrapping of the agreement.

"Along with the rape of our women, the VFA manifests US military intervention in our country and paves the way for countless other atrocities against our people and our land," Santiago said. — With Jose Rodel Clapano, Paolo Romero, AP, AFP

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