Her opponents call for suspension of pact
By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: January 1, 2007
MANILA: The Philippine government’s decision to turn over to U.S. authorities an American soldier convicted of rape has provoked an outcry among Filipinos, with critics warning of a constitutional crisis and the possible impeachment of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Arroyo’s opponents, furious at what they see as an affront to Philippine sovereignty, have called for the suspension of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, which specifies that U.S. soldiers convicted of crimes in the Philippines should be transferred into U.S. custody.
Last month, Washington canceled a joint military exercise with the Philippine military and threatened to stop defense aid after a local court refused to transfer Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, a marine, to U.S. officials and instead remanded him to a city jail.
In December, a Filipino court convicted Smith, 21, of raping a Filipino woman in a vehicle after a night of heavy drinking. A tug of war ensued over where he would serve his 40-year sentence, with the U.S. insisting that, under the Visiting Forces Agreement, Smith should be held by the United States even while he appeals his conviction.
Close to midnight on Friday, while Filipinos were preparing for the New Year holiday weekend, police officers escorted Smith from his Manila jail cell to the U.S. Embassy, where, according to Filipino officials, he would be restricted to a specially built room.
It is unclear where Smith would serve out his sentence, should his appeal be rejected.
U.S. and Philippine officials say that they will hammer out the details of his incarceration after the appeals process is concluded.
The U.S. Embassy has insisted that the transfer was required by the Visiting Forces Agreement and that the U.S. government is not questioning his conviction, just his custody.
“He will spend the New Year in detention at the embassy, and will continue to be in detention until the end of the judicial proceeding,” said Matt Lussenhop, an embassy spokesman.
Arroyo has not made any statement on the controversy. Her executive secretary said that Arroyo did not give the order for the transfer but that she supported the move.
Satur Ocampo, a leftist congressman, called the transfer “treachery to national sovereignty bordering on treason.” He said Arroyo “betrayed the Constitution and national dignity” by turning Smith over to the embassy “in disregard of our national laws and national interest.”
Ocampo and several allies in Congress said that they would file an impeachment complaint against Arroyo, while leftist groups warned of more anti-U.S. protests in the weeks ahead.
That the transfer was done without a court order has raised the hackles of even Arroyo’s allies. It has also enraged the woman Smith was convicted of assaulting.
“This is a flagrant insult,” the woman, identified in the press as “Nicole,” told The Philippine Daily Inquirer. “I am so dismayed,” she said.
The transfer of Smith despite ongoing litigation “is not only a violation of the Constitution but also a complete disregard and disrespect for the judicial branch, including the Supreme Court,” said Neri Javier Colmenares, a spokesman for the Counsels for the Defense of Liberties, a civil rights organization.
“It is not only a contempt of court, but treachery that signals the complete breakdown of the rule of law,” he said.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, an Arroyo ally who heads a legislative committee with oversight of the Visiting Forces Agreement, said Sunday that the government “overreached” with its decision to transfer Smith.
“I’m afraid that the end does not justify the means,” she told reporters.
Some in Congress spoke out in favor of the transfer, including Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, once a defense minister under Ferdinand Marcos, the former Philippine president.
“We need America,” said Enrile. “We cannot adequately protect ourselves. We cannot afford to lose America as our ally.”