By Joel Guinto, Agence France-Presse
MANILA – A US Marine accused of murdering a transgender woman in the Philippines appeared in court on Friday for the first time since her death more than two months ago.
Journalists were barred from the court hearing in the northern port city of Olongapo, which Private First Class Joseph Pemberton had to attend as a procedural matter before the start of his trial.
However lawyers who attended the hearing and took photos described Pemberton as sitting quietly while wearing handcuffs in one corner of the tiny courtroom, surrounded by burly American security personnel.
After the charge of murder was read into the court, Pemberton asked for the arraignment proceedings, in which he would have to give a plea, to be postponed, court clerk Gerry Gruspe told reporters.
It was not immediately clear on what grounds he requested the delay, but the court granted his request, and the next hearing was scheduled for Monday.
The high-profile case has inflamed anti-US feelings in the Philippines and strained diplomatic relations between the longtime allies.
Pemberton was charged with murder over the death of Jennifer Laude, 26, also known as Jeffrey, whose body was found at a cheap hotel in the red light district of Olongapo before dawn on October 12.
Pemberton, 19 at the time, had just finished taking part in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo and had checked into the hotel with Laude, according to police.
If he is found guilty of murder, he faces 40 years in jail.
Inside the court on Friday, the victim’s sister, Marilou Laude, said she was trembling with rage as she saw Pemberton for the first time.
“I wanted to grab his head and bang it against the wall,” Laude told reporters afterwards.
“We locked eyes briefly but he averted his gaze. I think he recognized that I’m the sister of Jennifer.(Pemberton)has such an innocent face. I wanted to ask him why he wanted my sister dead.”
Pemberton was booked and his mug shot taken before the court ordered him remanded to the Philippine military headquarters in Manila, according to Gruspe, the court clerk.
Pemberton has been under American military custody at the base, after the US government refused to hand custody of him over to the Philippine authorities.
The US government insists that, under a 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, it has a right to retain custody of any American soldier charged with a crime in the Philippines until the end of all judicial proceedings.
However the Philippine government has repeatedly demanded for Pemberton to be handed over, and expressed “disappointment” at the US decision.
Laude family lawyer Harry Roque criticised the detention arrangement, likening it to special treatment for the American suspect.
He said he has asked the court to order Pemberton’s transfer to a regular Philippine jail.