MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's absolute pardon of convicted killer US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton is "sheer immorality and totally unjust," a lawyer for the victim's family said Tuesday.
Duterte pardoned Pemberton, found guilty of homicide for the October 2014 slay of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude, just as the justice department planned to question his early release that a court granted to him due to supposed good conduct.
The President's move is tied to the Philippines again welcoming US support in its assertion of sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea, according to lawyer Romel Bagares, counsel for Jennifer Laude's family.
"This is really sheer immorality and it’s totally unjust given what happened and the political context. We have a president who’s saying he’s for independent Philippine policy but all that talk is now out of the window with this decision," he told ANC.
"It’s totally arbitrary. It totally goes against what’s proper and what’s just for a case like this. The government tries to protect sovereignty in the South China Sea by bargaining sovereignty. But you can’t do that. If you want to protect sovereignty, you have to fight for it and the best way to do that is to fight for the little people because they’re what matters to government."
The Philippines remains locked in a dispute with China over territories in the South China Sea, where Beijing has ramped up militarization and island-building activities. The US, while not a claimant, has been asserting respect for freedom of navigation and calling out acts of aggression by the Chinese side.
The Duterte administration has been pursuing friendlier ties with China despite the unresolved dispute, while his previous statements and acts were seen as moves to pivot from the country's long-standing relationship with the US, at one point ordering the cancellation of a military agreement with the Americans, which he later walked back on.
The President's pardon for Pemberton was a singular act that came as a surprise even for the convicted soldier's defense counsel.
Contrary to the President's statements, Bagares said Pemberton was not treated unfairly and was even "given special privileges" during his detention at a facility manned by Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) guards inside the Philippine military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
"He’s not detained in the national penitentiary where the courts have recognized conditions are torturous. He’s in an air-conditioned facility all by himself. There’s no threat of physical harm to him from other inmates that we usually expect in local jails. He is basically immune from all the other challenges ordinary inmates face," he said.
The camp of Laude's family was also not given the opportunity to contest and cross-examine records supposedly showing Pemberton's good conduct in prison, he added.
"The court itself did the computation, it should be the BuCor that should do that," he said, referring to time credited under the Good Conduct Time Allowance law that shortened his prison time under the court's order.
Pemberton's counsel Rowena Garcia Flores said he might be released from prison before the weekend.
The US Marine still has to comply with certain health requirements before he is set free, said BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag.
-- With reports from Jervis Manahan, ABS-CBN News