American military exercise is canceled to show displeasure
By Thom Shanker
International Herald Tribune
Published: December 22, 2006
WASHINGTON: The United states has canceled a huge annual military exercise with the Philippines in a dispute over custody of a Marine lance corporal convicted of raping a local woman.
The commander of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, said he also would halt aid and reconstruction programs carried out by the American military in the Philippines until he was confident that the troops’ legal rights would be protected under bilateral agreements governing visiting U.S. forces.
“I’m not the judge of the guilt or innocence of the individual,” Fallon said. “The issue is only one of custody. I am responsible to our people in uniform. I have to have guarantees that I can trust their safety to an international agreement.”
The bilateral pact that governs American forces in the Philippines, the Visiting Forces Agreement, or VFA, requires that American military personnel be held in American custody during criminal proceedings, including appeals, until a final resolution of the matter.
But after the corporal, Daniel Smith, was convicted of rape and sentenced earlier this month, a judge ordered him held in local police custody even though his case went straight to appeal.
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Matthew Lussenhop, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Manila, said Washington would not stop “civil or military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States, especially in Mindanao,” referring to the region in the southern Philippines where Americans are helping Filipino soldiers deal with terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah.
“Until the government and the courts ensure the Philippines is in full compliance with the VFA, it would not be prudent to bring additional U.S. troops to the Philippines at this time,” he said, according to Agence France- Presse.
Earlier in the day, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney, told ABS-CBN television that Washington was disappointed with the local court’s refusal to yield Smith to American custody. She said the court’s action “wasn’t consistent with the Visiting Forces Agreement.”
Officials from the Philippine military and the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declined to comment Friday on the cancellation of the exercises, known as Balikatan 2007, but the government has sided with Washington against the judiciary in interpreting the agreement to require Smith’s transfer to American custody.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who is chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Philippine Senate as well as a legislative oversight committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement, said Friday that the cancellation would not have a serious impact on U.S.-Philippine relations.
“We will have to appeal to the U.S. government to suspend any adverse reaction to the Smith case pending the resolution of the case in the higher courts,” she said, referring to the appeal of the conviction filed by Smith before the Philippine Court of Appeals, which on Tuesday rejected a petition from Smith to be transferred immediately into U.S. custody. “This will only be a blip on the screen of our relations with the Americans.”
Wigberto Tanada, a former senator, who is one of the sharpest critics of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and is representing the rape victim in opposing Smith’s appeal, said the cancellation of the exercises and the threat to suspend military aid shows that “the Americans still have not learned to treat us as equals.”
The rape case, which concluded Dec. 4 with a conviction and a sentence of 40 years in prison, has tested relations between the two countries and challenged the validity of the bilateral agreement.
It also has sharpened a political division between Filipinos with nationalist resentments and those with affection for the former colonial power â€” or at least those who cite the economic and security benefits of ties to the United States.
In a telephone interview from Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Fallon said that he already had ordered the withdrawal of an aid team in the Philippines that was assessing needs of a typhoon-ravaged area.
He said that he also had canceled a number of visits by American ships.
American military officers said the Philippines armed forces supported the legal position of the United States, and the political officer at the Philippines Embassy in Washington agreed Thursday that the U.S. position was correct.
“The United States government and the executive branch of the Philippines government are on the same side of this issue,” Patricia Paez, the embassy’s political officer here, said Thursday. “We believe Corporal Smith should be in the custody of the U.S. embassy because of the terms and conditions of the Visiting Forces Agreement.”
Carlos H. Conde contributed reporting from Manila.