Four witnesses give statements over Philippine transgender murder: US

Relatives and supporters of murdered Filipino transgender Jeffrey Laude, also known as Jennifer, protest in front of the USS Peleliu, where murder suspect Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton is detained, at Subic port in Olongapo City, north o
Relatives and supporters of murdered Filipino transgender Jeffrey Laude, also known as Jennifer, protest in front of the USS Peleliu, where murder suspect Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton is detained, at Subic port in Olongapo City, north of Manila on Oct 18, 2014. Four witnesses gave statements to Philippine prosecutors regarding the case, the US embassy said on Sunday, Oct 19. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Four witnesses gave statements to Philippine prosecutors in a case where an American Marine is a suspect in the murder of a Filipino transgender person, the US embassy said on Sunday.

"Last week, City Prosecutors met with four witnesses and swore them to their statements in accordance with Philippine law," the embassy said. The embassy, in a statement, cited this as another sign of its continued cooperation in the controversial murder case. "The witnesses will be made available for the trial," the statement said.

The statement did not say who the witnesses were, but Philippine authorities had previously said they wanted to question four US marines who are believed to have witnessed the murder.

Another US Marine is being investigated over the death of Jeffrey Laude, described by local police as a transgender sex worker.

Prosecutors in the northern port city of Olongapo, where Laude was found dead on Oct 12, had originally wanted the suspect and four witnesses to give depositions at a formal hearing on Tuesday.

The embassy said the four witnesses would no longer have to appear on Tuesday as their statements had already been obtained. But it stressed that "whether the suspect will appear on Tuesday is a decision that he will make in consultation with his Philippine legal counsel, in accordance with Philippine law".

The killing has grabbed national headlines and become an issue in the defence ties between the Philippines and the United States, its former colonial ruler and long-time ally.

Police said they found the victim half-naked on the bathroom floor of a hotel room with more than a dozen bruises, cuts and bite marks. They said the victim, who had checked in with the suspect just over an hour earlier, had died from "asphyxia by drowning".

Police and the prosecutor named the suspect as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, attached to a North Carolina-based unit that had just taken part in joint military exercises in the Philippines.

Under the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement, the suspect will be charged in a Philippine court but custody will remain with the Americans unless the US government waives this.

Philippine diplomats have said they will ask for his custody once an arrest warrant is issued but it is not clear if the United States will grant this.

The Philippines has said the politically charged case should not be allowed to derail longstanding defence ties, amid growing public pressure for Pemberton to be handed over into Philippines custody. The Philippines agreed in March to allow US forces wider temporary access to Filipino military facilities.