By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – Persistence and swiftness were the lessons shared by lawyer Virginia Suarez in winning the case of slain Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude by a US soldier in the Philippines who was protected by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines. With the death of Laude, transgender rights became a big public discussion for the first time among Filipinos in 2014. And the highly-charged Philippine sovereignty vis-a-vis the military might of the US was once again inflamed.
Suarez, in a press conference organized by the feminist group AF3IRM and Ugnayan Youth here, said that the Laude case became an “avenue” where issues of transgender rights became alive. Her death also re-ignited the clamor for Philippine government to repudiate the VFA which gives legal and physical presence of the US military forces in the Philippines, she said.
Suarez is in the US for a tour of the documentary film on Jennifer Laude’s misfortune titled “Call Her Ganda” (Call her beautiful; directed by PJ Raval) which had a world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Laude died of ‘asphyxiation by drowning’ on October 11, 2014 in Olangapo City by 19-year-old Private 1st Class Joseph Scott Pemberton who did not know that Laude was a trans-woman. Pemberton and Laude met at a disco bar and later went to a nearby motel on the night of October 11, 2014. According to police records and witnesses, Pemberton left the motel room after 30 minutes and Laude’s body was found half naked and her head in a toilet bowl.
Laude’s mom Julita sought help from Suarez, who is a labor lawyer and a member of the Kaisa Ka women’s group in the Philippines. She and Atty. Harry Roque, who now works as presidential spokesperson for Pres. Duterte, represented the family and won the case. “We had to swiftly act on the murder charges while Pemberton was still officially on active duty in the Philippines. We had court hearings three times a week,” recounted Suarez.
Asked how the legal counsels managed to have Pemberton, a resident of New Bedford, Massachusetts, tried in Philippine court despite the VFA, Suarez said that they argued that Pemberton was “on duty” when the criminal act was committed. Outside the courtroom, human rights groups were campaigning publicly on the merits of the safety for a transgender woman as well as the repeal of the VFA which was an affront to Philippine sovereignty.
Under the VFA, US soldiers are under American jurisdiction while being posted outside American territory. In December 2015, the Olangapo Regional Trial Court found Pemberton guilty and charged him with homicide with a 6-10 year imprisonment without bail. The lawyers bawled at the decision but the court argued that Pemberton was charged for homicide, not murder, because of mitigating circumstances of passion and obfuscation.
Laude’s case served as an eye-opener for the LGBTQ community to speak out bravely for their safety and human rights. AF3IRM founder and internationally acclaimed novelist Ninotchka Rosca cited that her group supports LGBTQ struggles, “because in the gender binary of male and female, the LGBTQ stands even lower in regard than women.” (All photos by Lambert Parong)