Smith back to US custody
Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, convicted for raping a Filipina, was returned to the U.S. custody despite decisions by the Makati Trial Court and the Court of Appeals that he should stay in Makati jail.
The manner Smith was returned to US custody, surely with the approval of the executive department, is another demonstration that jungle justice reigns supreme in Gloria Arroyo’s administration.
Convicted American serviceman Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was freed from a Makati jail late evening Friday on orders of the Philippine government, the US embassy said.
Embassy spokesperson Matthew Lussenhop said that Smith was moved out of the Makati City Jail to the embassy at about 11 p.m.
Smith’s transfer came almost a month after the US and Philippine governments urged a local court to turn him over to American custody while his case is on appeal, citing provisions under the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
“The government of the Philippines made a decision to transfer Lance Corporal Daniel Smith back to US custody, consistent with the terms of the VFA,” The Associated Press quoted Lussenhop as saying.
“I do not know when the decision was precisely given, but the transfer was made at around 11 o’clock,” he said, adding it “was in cooperation with the Philippine police.”
Smith, 21, of St. Louis, was found guilty on December 4 of raping a Filipino woman, identified in court as “Nicole,” and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was detained at the Makati City jail.
The rape case has tested relations between the two countries, with the Philippine courts refusing to hand Smith over to the US embassy as requested.
The United States cancelled its annual joint military exercises with the Philippines in 2007 in protest at the refusal, which had raised concerns over the legal rights of US soldiers in this country.
Smith’s lawyers, the US embassy, and the Philippine departments of justice and foreign affairs had all said Smith’s detention violates the VFA, which covers the presence of US troops in the Philippines.
A provision in the agreement says any accused American serviceman shall remain in US custody until all judicial proceedings are exhausted.
But Makati regional trial court Judge Benjamin Pozon, in his ruling, said the provision applies only during “the judicial proceedings in the trial court” and expires upon a defendant’s conviction, regardless of a pending appeal.
Private prosecutor Evalyn Ursua, lawyer for Subic rape victim Nicole, said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo could be impeached for allowing this “violation of our sovereignty” and “clear foreign intervention.”
“I am sure without her order, this transfer will not be possible,” she said.
Ursua said her group would also file criminal cases against Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romula, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez and all those responsible for Smith’s transfer.
“They are all rapists. They raped our Constitution. They should all be held criminally liable,” Ursua said.
Ursua said only the courts could give orders for Smith to be transferred.
Asked what was the basis for Smith’s release despite his conviction, Lussenhop simply said: “By the order of the Philippine government.”
Smith would be kept in the same US Embassy facility where he was held during his trial, said Lussenhop.
An intelligence source said Smith was freed on orders of Arroyo but there was no immediate comment from Malacañang.
Inquirer sources in Baguio where Arroyo is spending the New Year said that she was at with US embassy officials for cocktails for about an hour last night.
“What I know is nakalabas na siya (He has been released). It’s government to government,” a source familiar with the case told the Inquirer apparently to justify the turnover of Smith to US custody.
Philippine foreign affairs officials could not also be reached for comment.
Leftist and nationalist groups had earlier hailed Smith’s detention in the Makati jail, saying it was in accordance with local laws.
They charged that US efforts to get him transferred were “arm-twisting.”
Officials acknowledged the cancellation of the joint exercises was a severe setback in diplomatic relations and to the upgrading of the poorly-equipped Philippine military.
The Philippines has one of the most poorly-equipped armed forces in the region and is already hard-pressed battling a 7,100-strong communist insurgency as well as Muslim extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf.
It has been hoping for US aid to upgrade its armed forces.
Lussenhop said it was “too early to say” if the cancelled joint military exercises would push through now that Smith was back in US custody. “As of now it is still cancelled,” he said.
Balikatan is the largest US military exercise held in the Philippines each year, involving as many as 5,000 American soldiers.
At least one round of joint exercises between Filipino and US troops has been planned in February, said a military official who coordinated past war games.
The rape case has also sparked street protests and revived anti-American sentiment in the former US colony.
With Tetch Torres and Lira Dalangin-Fernandez INQUIRER.net; Volt Contreras, Alcuin Papa, Tarra V. Quismundo and Norman Bordadora, Inquirer; Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press