Rape trial in RP revives face of ‘ugly American’

Agence France-Presse

Posted date: October 25, 2006

THE TRIAL of four US Marines for the alleged rape of a young woman in the Philippines has revived the face of the "ugly American" in this former US colony.

Not since the 1960s has a criminal case involving US servicemen created so much bitterness and anti-American feeling than what is popularly referred to as the Subic Bay rape case.

If found guilty the Marines -- lance corporals Keith Silkwood, Daniel Smith and Dominic Duplantis, and Staff Sergeant Chad Carpentier -- could theoretically spend the rest of their lives in a Philippine jail, although no one really believes that will happen.

The four-month trial, which ended on October 5, unleashed a wave of anti-American protest and demonstrations outside the US embassy and around Manila.

It led to calls from the opposition for the abolition of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which spells out the legal framework for American troops taking part in exercises in the Philippines.

While the agreement protects soldiers from prosecution during exercises it is less specific when it comes to crimes committed while on leave.

So far, no alternative to the VFA has been proposed by either government or by those who oppose the current arrangement.

One vocal opponent is Senator Joker Arroyo, who said the current case exposed the US government's "failure to take the moral high ground" on actions by its troops on foreign soil, and described the Marines as "sex terrorists."

For many it has revived memories of the "ugly American" when US servicemen stationed in the Philippines seemed to sometimes literally get away with murder.

Filipinos have long been accustomed to the presence of US troops in their country.

There were some 20,000 US servicemen at Subic Naval Base, then the repair and supply yard of the Japan-based US Seventh Fleet, and the Clark Air Base, home of the 13th US Air Force, before they and a handful of smaller facilities were handed over to the Philippines in 1992.

Washington installed the bases shortly after winning control of the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The Philippines won independence in 1946 and a year later the US signed a military bases agreement with its former colony allowing US forces use of Subic, Clark and 19 other smaller facilities for 99 years.

The term was shortened to 25 years in an agreement implemented in 1966, and in 1992, following a highly-charged political debate, Subic Bay, Clark, the Camp John Hay rest and recreation facility, the Poro Point Naval Air Station and the compound of the Joint US Military Advisory Group were handed back.

There has been no permanent US military presence since then, but small numbers of US Special Forces advisers -- exact numbers are not made public -- train Filipino forces involved in the hunt for Islamic militants in the southern Philippines.

In the decades leading up to the handover of the bases, a number of incidents created a groundswell of anger among Filipinos as sometimes it seemed that US soldiers were using the locals for target practice but rarely faced justice.

In 1964 a Filipino boy was shot in the back by a sentry at the Clark Airfield. This was followed by the killing of a Filipino fisherman by American sentries at the Subic Bay naval base.

The shootings triggered a series of demonstrations at the bases and outside the US embassy in Manila, which tried to explain away the shooting of the boy by saying that "certain Filipinos" had tried to bomb an American school at Clark.

In 1968 a Filipino was shot dead by an American sentry at a US base in Cavite and in 1969 a US soldier went hunting with his service pistol and shot a Filipino employed at the base. In his defense the soldier said he thought the Filipino was a wild bore.

After a brief investigation by the US authorities it was found that there was no case to answer and a few days later the soldier was put on a military aircraft and sent back to the US.

Under the agreement that existed then US military personnel were not subject to Philippine law for crimes committed in the country.

Against this background -- despite the historical ties between the two countries and the affinity many Filipinos feel for the US -- the Subic Bay rape case has been bitterly divisive.

Women's groups have rallied around the woman, identified only as "Nicole," claiming she is an innocent victim.

Smith has never denied having sex with the woman but he and his co-accused have maintained it was consensual.

Both sides agree that the incident took place last November after a night out at a Subic Bay club when the woman, who was dating another US serviceman at the time, met the defendants.

She danced and drank with them, and ended up in the back of a rented van naked with Smith.

The woman, now 23, has testified that she was raped by Smith while she was drunk and defenseless as the three other Americans cheered him on.

US ambassador to Manila Kristie Kenney acknowledges that "the situation with the Marines is a difficult one and an emotional one," but she stresses the bilateral relationship remains strong.

Political and military analyst Rommel Balaoi of the National Defense College describes the case as "one irritant" in defense ties between Manila and Washington, which he said were "committed in their security relationship."

But he did suggest the case could lead to some adjustments in how US forces conduct themselves.

What angered many Filipinos was the fact that the US invoked the VFA and refused to hand over the Marines to the Philippine authorities.

The Pentagon, through military aid in the form of equipment, training and advice, is engaged in a massive overhaul of the Philippine military to enable it to better deal with the twin threats of Islamic militants and a long-running communist insurgency.

Small numbers of US counter-terrorism advisers have been rotating in and out of the southern Philippines since the signing of the VFA to provide training, advice and intelligence to Filipino troops going after the small Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf and foreign militants under its protection.

During the rape trial "Nicole" accused government prosecutors of incompetence and said the Filipino justice department had tried to pressure her family to settle the case out of court.

"Is the government really interested in getting justice for me? Or does it simply want to finish the case without caring for the result," the woman asked in a written statement to the press.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has rejected suggestions the government wanted the woman to settle for the benefit of bilateral security ties. He also fired a government prosecutor acting in the case who made the same allegations.

Even the dominant Roman Catholic Church waded into the case when Father James Reuter, an American priest and former spokesman of the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines who has lived most of his life in the country, expressed doubts over whether a rape had occurred.

"I think it was seduction," Reuter told the International Herald Tribune newspaper in an interview last month, further stoking popular outrage.

Judge Benjamin Pozon's verdict, due on November 27, is bound to cause even more controversy -- whether he finds the Marines guilty or innocent.