Philippines police file charges against US Marine in transgender murder case

MANILA (REUTERS) - Police in the Philippines filed murder charges on Wednesday against a U.S. Marine over the death of a transgender Filipino he met in a bar outside the former US naval base of Subic Bay.

The Philippine government also wants to take custody of Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton while he stands trial, said a senior Philippine official, who warned that the case could damage military ties between the allies.

"Based on two witnesses' testimonies, we believe we have a strong case against the U.S. Marine," said Pedrito delos Reyes, police chief of Olongapo City, where the body of Jeffrey Laude, 26, was found in a hotel room on Saturday.

Police officers accompanied by the two witnesses and the family of Laude, who also went by the name Jennifer, went to the prosecutor's office to file murder charges, taking copies of an autopsy report saying the death was due to asphyxia by drowning.

U.S. authorities said the Marine was being held aboard the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship, in Subic Bay. Three other individuals were also held as potential witnesses.

In Washington, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos declined to comment on the details of the case, which he called "a huge tragedy,' but said he hoped it would not cloud relations with the Philippines.

"I know the matter has the potential to charge the atmosphere with regards to the relationship between us and the Philippine government, and I hope it doesn't damage it because we have a very close relationship," he said.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the U.S. military had "a great sense of gravity over what happened" and was cooperating closely with local law enforcement on the case.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. forces in the Asia Pacific region, ordered the Peleliu and four other ships to remain in the Philippines while the investigation was proceeding, officials said.

The foreign ministry had asked U.S. embassy officials to cooperate in the investigation and hand the soldier to Philippine authorities because the allies' military relations could be affected, said a senior administration official in the Philippines.

"We're not saying he should be found guilty," said the official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media. "There should be a process or else there will be repercussions on the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement."

The official said the handling of the murder case could contribute to growing public opinion against the cooperation agreement, a new 10-year military pact the two countries signed in April, which has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

The pact allows the US military to store supplies in Philippine bases for operations related to maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

Under its status of forces agreement with the U.S. military, the Philippines can demand custody of an errant serviceman, to be held in a detention facility agreed by the two sides, said Eduardo Oban, executive director of the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission.

Some lawmakers in the Philippines have called for a public inquiry into the murder case and the country's existing military pacts with the United States.