MANILA--The Philippine Ambassador to the United States denied there was pressure by US officials for American soldier Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton’s release.
“There was no pressure or any indication that the United States was pushing. They obviously just want to protect their soldiers which they do all over the world,” Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez said.
Romualdez said the US was caught by surprise with the pardon granted to Pemberton by President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Even Ambassador Kim was surprised of the President’s decision to pardon Private (sic) Pemberton,” he said.
Duterte granted absolute pardon to Pemberton, who was convicted for killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.
Pemberton was sentenced in December 2015 to 6 to 10 years in prison for homicide, but was declared eligible for early release by an Olongapo court last week.
Romualdez said that as prosecutor Duterte knew how long the filing of release can take.
“So he was just being fair, that it’s going to be given anyway. He just wanted to cut to the chase and simply went ahead and it is a prerogative of the President,” Romualdez said.
He added there has been so much speculation regarding the impact of the pardon on US-Philippine relations, but the ambassador believed the Philippines continues to have good relations with the US.
“I think what President Duterte has done as far as our relationship with the United States is that he has always been emphasizing sovereignty and mutual respect, and I think we're getting that now more than ever,” he said.
“I think our relationship is much better than it ever was.”
Clearing the air
Meanwhile, international studies professor Renato de Castro said the absolute pardon for Pemberton “cleared the air” over the security relationship between the two countries.
De Castro said Pemberton’s case was an irritant in the bilateral relations and delayed the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
“When that happened, I still remember, it affected our security relationship. It delayed the implementation of the EDCA,” de Castro told ABS-CBN.
“It’s clearing the air for a better, stable relation, US-Philippine relation.”
De Castro said the pardon was also Duterte's gesture of showing that he is a fair and decisive leader and that the decision could be tied with US criticism against the Duterte administration’s drug war.
“President Duterte is sending a message to the United States, ‘I am a very decisive leader. When it comes to issues like this, I am fair, I am generally fair,' based doon sa speech niya. 'But please don’t criticize me when it comes to the drug war’,” de Castro said.
“I think the US Embassy never expected an absolute pardon. So this is really a gesture on the part of the President showing that he is willing to bite the dust regarding this.”
'No hero's welcome'
De Castro said the President was also conveying a message that he has no problem with the Visiting Forces Agreement. Pemberton’s conviction was the first under the VFA.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said: “President Duterte, by granting an absolute pardon to Pemberton, is sending a message that ‘I have no problem with the Visiting Forces Agreement.”
Duterte early this year reversed his decision to cancel the VFA.
Locsin said it was “to lower tensions between the US and China in the South China Sea.”
A political analyst based in the US, meanwhile, said he doesn't see Americans feeling any sympathy for Pemberton.
“Frankly, it’s not on the radar of many when Scott Pemberton comes home,” said Anders Corr, publisher of the Journal of Political Risk.
“Americans do care about their soldiers and they don’t want to see them in prison overseas even when they’re convicted of murder. But Scott Pemberton will not see a hero’s welcome in U.S. What he’s done is absolutely wrong and he will not be a hero here.”
-- With a report from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News