MANILA (Reuters) - A Philippine court found one of four U.S. Marines guilty of raping a Filipino woman inside a van at a former U.S. navy base last year, sentencing the 21-year-old sailor to life in prison for “bestial acts”.
The three other Marines were acquitted on Monday after a seven-month trial, which had prompted small protests against U.S.-Philippine military ties and intense local media interest.
The Philippine government hailed the result but said the verdict would do nothing to harm close relations with the United States, which provides funding, equipment and training to Filipino troops fighting Muslim and communist rebel groups.
“The court is morally convinced that Lance Corporal Daniel Smith committed the crime charged,” a clerk said, reading the decision of Judge Benjamin Pozon to a hushed, packed courtroom.
The verdict, which included an order for Smith to pay 100,000 pesos ($2,000) in damages to the victim and her family, will automatically go to a higher court for review.
Less than two hours after the ruling, a U.S. navy plane whisked the three acquitted Marines out of the Philippines to rejoin their unit in Okinawa, Japan.
“This has been a difficult and emotional matter for all involved, and for their families and friends,” the U.S. embassy, which had kept custody of the four Marines during the case, said in a statement.
Smith did not flinch when the verdict was read out but a quick volley of applause broke out inside the court. The victim, a 23-year-old management accounting graduate given the pseudonym “Nicole”, burst into tears and said “Thank God”.
“I am saddened the three got acquitted,” the woman said, adding she was “willing to endure everything” in what was likely to be a prolonged legal battle during Smith’s appeal.
QUESTION OF CUSTODY
The judge ordered Smith to be temporarily held at a jail in Manila while the two governments, bound by a Visiting Forces Agreement, resolve where he should serve his sentence.
Before sun down, local police brought Smith to the Makati City jail where he will spend the night while his lawyers petition a higher court to reverse Pozon’s order.
Citing the Visiting Forces Agreement, U.S. embassy officials argued that Smith could remain under U.S. custody until after a final decision was made by the Supreme Court, which will review the lower court’s ruling.
On the streets outside the court, 300 protesters, mainly women, cheered and punched the air triumphantly. Placards read “Jail the Rapists” and “U.S. troops out now”.
During the controversial case, critics argued the Visiting Forces Agreement gives U.S. soldiers too much protection.
But the executive director of the agreement, Zosimo Paredes, said the verdict -- the first legal test of the seven-year-old pact -- could actually strengthen security and diplomatic ties between the United States and its only former colony in Asia.
“I think this decision works on both sides,” Paredes told reporters, adding it would serve as a warning to U.S. troops coming to the Philippines to uphold local laws. “The chance of this incident happening again is reduced.”
From 1981 to 1988, when the United States had two huge military bases in the Philippines, at least 82 cases of sexual abuse of women by U.S. troops were recorded but none of the accused was punished because the complaints were dismissed.
The woman accused Smith and the other Marines of raping her in November 2005 after she drank with them at a bar while the sailors were on shore leave at the end of two weeks of military exercises with Filipino soldiers.
The Marines said only Smith had sex with her and that it was consensual. They claimed the woman was being manipulated to incriminate them.
Pozon said Smith knew the woman was drunk and could not have consented to sex.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.