Philippines seeks custody of US Marine charged with murder

Activists display placards of US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton during a protest outside the presidential palace in Manila on Oct 28, 2014. The Philippine government sought formal custody on Dec 16, 2014, of the US marine char
Activists display placards of US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton during a protest outside the presidential palace in Manila on Oct 28, 2014. The Philippine government sought formal custody on Dec 16, 2014, of the US marine charged with murder over the death of a Filipino transgender woman after a court ordered his arrest. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippine government sought formal custody Tuesday of a US Marine charged with murder over the death of a Filipino transgender woman after a court ordered his arrest.

In a case that has fanned anti-American feelings and tested close military ties, Joseph Pemberton was charged Monday with murdering a transgender woman who was found dead at a cheap hotel in the northern port city of Olongapo in October.

A lower court in Olongapo ordered the defendant's arrest Tuesday and ruled he will not be entitled to post bail, court officials said.

"We welcome the progress made so far on the case, and as we stated earlier, we will now formally seek custody over the accused," foreign department spokesman Charles Jose said in a statement.

Pemberton has remained under official US custody even after he was transferred from a US warship off Olongapo to the Philippine military headquarters in Manila amid a public outcry.

Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender woman also known as Jeffrey, was found dead on October 12 in a cheap hotel in a red light district of the port city of Olongapo.

Pemberton, 19 at the time, had just finished taking part in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo and checked into the hotel with Laude. He was the last person seen with her, police said.

Murder is punishable by up to 40 years in jail.

The US embassy issued a statement Tuesday on the murder charge against Pemberton, but made no mention of the court order for his arrest.

"In accordance with the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, the United States has a right to retain custody of a suspect from the commission of the alleged offence until the completion of all judicial proceedings," it said.

"The United States will continue to work closely with the Philippine government to help ensure justice is served and the rights of all persons are protected."

A US embassy spokeswoman did not immediately reply to requests for comment by AFP on the arrest order and the foreign department's request to seek custody of Pemberton.

Laude's death sparked street protests in the Philippines, a former US colony that gained independence in 1946 but has retained a close alliance.

The United States closed down two major military bases in 1992, but the allies in 1998 signed a Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed US troops to take part in war games on Philippine soil.

Military exercises involving thousands of US soldiers have since taken place each year.