Philippines want custody of US Marine linked to transgender murder

A relative grieves next to the coffin containing the body of a 26-year-old transgender Filipino, who was found strangled in a hotel room, during a wake in Olongapo city north of Manila on Oct 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A relative grieves next to the coffin containing the body of a 26-year-old transgender Filipino, who was found strangled in a hotel room, during a wake in Olongapo city north of Manila on Oct 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines said Tuesday it will seek custody of a US Marine currently detained on a war ship under suspicion of the murder of a local transgender person as police readied murder charges against him.

The body of Jeffrey Laude, also known as Jennifer, was found by hotel staff in the northern port city of Olongapo late Sunday, less than an hour after the victim checked into a room with an unidentified blonde male.

The suspect was part of the 3,500-member US contingent in the Philippines to conduct joint military exercises, which ended last week.

A police statement issued Tuesday said the US serviceman had been identified by a witness and that a murder charge was being prepared against him.

Earlier the American embassy had confirmed: "A U.S. Marine has been identified as a possible suspect in the ongoing investigation. The suspected Marine is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina."

It added that the soldier was being held onboard USS Peleliu while a joint Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Philippine National Police investigation is conducted.

Foreign Department spokesman Charles Jose told AFP the Philippines would seek custody of the US serviceman if he proves to be involved. He said: "I think we will and we should but there's no guarantee (the) US will grant our request." The case is a fresh test for the Visiting Forces Agreement, an accord signed by the two allies in 1998 covering legal liability of US forces in the Philippines.

The VFA gives the Philippines jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes not linked to their official duties but it also says custody of these Americans will remain with the US government. The agreement does state that in "extraordinary cases," the Philippines can ask for custody.

Laude, who arrived at the hotel dressed as a woman and checked in with a "foreign man", was found lifeless on the bathroom floor with marks on the neck police said Monday, adding that initial investigations suggested the victim had been strangled.

Leftist and nationalist groups have seized on the issue to condemn the country's alliance with the United States. About 60 protesters staged a rally at the US embassy on Tuesday, burning a makeshift US flag as they condemned the murder and the presence of American troops.