Convicted Marine awaits decision on where he'll serve sentence
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine military camp where Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton is being held inside a makeshift jail looks a lot like a small forward operating base in Iraq or Afghanistan.
A razor-wire fence encloses an area about half the size of a football field. U.S. Marines and personnel from the Philippine Bureau of Corrections stand guard inside.
Barriers obscure the view of an air-conditioned 20-foot container van at Camp Aguinaldo, where the 19-year-old Pemberton has been sleeping since he was charged with murder in the death of a transgender Filipina in October 2014.
A decision is due early this week on where he will spend time pending appeal of his conviction and six- to 12-year sentence in the strangling and drowning death of Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude. Pemberton also was ordered to pay damages and compensation of nearly $100,000.
Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde, citing ambiguities in a deal reached between U.S. and Philippine authorities, initially ordered Pemberton sent to New Bilibid, the country’s main prison in Manila. But the U.S. refused to hand over Pemberton after the verdict, sparking several hours of haggling.
The judge then gave officials five days to decide where to incarcerate him.
For now, Pemberton is back at his temporary jail across the road from a golf driving range and a stone’s throw from family housing for officers. Tarps obscure much of the view inside, but passers-by can observe Marines working out at an outdoor gym and the prison guards sitting nearby.
It’s unclear how Pemberton has been passing his time. Marine Corps and State Department officials declined to provide details of his confinement, citing security concerns and privacy issues.
U.S. officials argue — under the provisions of a 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement —that they have the right to hold Pemberton until the judicial process is complete.
“Lance Cpl. Pemberton will remain in the Philippines in U.S. custody for the duration of the appeals process in accordance with the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Chuck Little, a spokesman for Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, said in an email to Stars and Stripes.
It’s a clause that has been widely criticized in the Philippines as giving U.S. troops favored treatment.
The U.S. will continue to argue for custody because they fear for Pemberton’s safety at New Bilibid, according to Patricio Abinales, a Philippines expert at the University of Hawaii, who compared the prison to a city corrupted by drugs, gangs and prostitution.
Raids at the prison Wednesday — the day after the verdict — netted improvised shotguns, ammunition and bladed weapons. Earlier this month, a raid on cells occupied by members of the Sigue-Sigue Sputnik and Commando gangs recovered a large buried cache of firearms; other recent raids confiscated explosives, liquor, mobile phones, sex toys, flat-screen televisions and a remote-controlled toy helicopter, according to a report in The Philippine Star newspaper.
New Bilibid houses drug lords, communist rebels and Islamic terrorists — however, the Muslim prisoners are segregated from the mainly Christian population, so it’s unlikely they would pose a threat to Pemberton, Abinales said.
Still, Pemberton would need to seek protection from the gangs, he said.
“He would be worried about other elements. He doesn’t speak the language or understand operations inside the prison. He would be constantly in danger. They might not kill him, but he might get beaten up,” Abinales said.
“The American government is very aware of this,” he said. “My sense is that they will fight tooth and nail to keep him at Camp Aguinaldo.”
Carl Baker of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii said he believes the U.S. and Philippine governments have already decided that Pemberton will stay at Camp Aguinaldo now but eventually will be moved nearby to a Bureau of Corrections Detention Center in a military Intelligence Service compound where a group of coup plotters was once held. There are reports that the facility is being renovated to bring it up to international standards, he said.
“The only difference from the current arrangement is that he will be under the custody and guarded by the Bureau of Corrections rather than the U.S.,” Baker said.
It’s also unclear how long Pemberton will spend behind bars.
“Most are saying he will spend a minimum of six years based on good behavior. Others are skeptical that the U.S. will actually allow him to stay (in the Philippines),” he said. “Speculation ranges from seeking bail during the appeal process to fear that the Philippines government will turn him over to the U.S. and they will get him out of the country as fast as they can.”
Abinales thinks Pemberton would probably finish his jail time in the U.S.
“He still has a strong chance of being sent home,” he said. “It depends on how strongly the Philippines government insists on keeping him in the country. I’m not sure how strong they will push because of China.”
Public support also has been growing in the Philippines for a stronger U.S. military presence, particularly with China’s aggression in the South China Sea, the ongoing threat of terrorism and the typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes that regularly batter the country.
The Philippines recently signed an agreement that will allow U.S. forces to use bases here to pre-position disaster aid and other gear here for the first time since American bases were closed down two decades ago.
Even next spring’s presidential elections in the Philippines are unlikely to change the dynamic, Abinales said. “I doubt if this president or even his successor will push hard to keep Pemberton in the Philippines.”