The new development has sparked left-wing and nationalist claims of a conspiracy, because it came just days after a telephone call between President Obama and President Gloria Arroyo, a U.S. ally.
Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was convicted in 2006 of raping Suzette Nicolas (known only as “Nicole” during the trial), and sentenced to an effective 40 years in prison. Shortly after his conviction he was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, pending an appeal.
His move to the embassy provoked an uproar, with Arroyo’s opponents accusing her of agreeing to preferential treatment for an American. Last month the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that Smith should be transferred to a Manila prison, but the U.S. declined to do so, citing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) governing the presence of U.S. troops in the country.
During the trial, Nicolas said she and Smith had been drinking together at a club in Subic Bay and that he had taken advantage of her inebriated state to rape her in a parked vehicle, while three other Marines cheered him on. Smith – who was in the country for joint military exercises at the time of the incident – maintained that sexual intercourse was consensual.
In a statement released by her lawyer, Nicolas wrote that her conscience was bothering her, “realizing that I may have in fact been so friendly and intimate with Daniel Smith at the Neptune Club, that he was led to believe that I was amenable to having sex or that we simply just got carried away.”
“I would rather risk public outrage than do nothing to help the court in ensuring that justice is served.”
Nicolas’ lawyer said her client was now in the U.S., having apparently moved there “for good.”
A spokesman for Arroyo, Eduardo Ermita, said the statement – which is being described in the Philippines as a “recantation” – had come as a surprise to the government and insisted that it had had nothing to do with it.
In a statement issued after the phone call, the White House said Obama and Arroyo had reaffirmed their commitment to the VFA, “which remains critical to the bilateral relationship and our strategic interests.”
Critics say the VFA is one-sided in favor of the U.S., and an affront to Philippines’ sovereignty.
The Senate has been considering measures to terminate the agreement for several years, and recent developments in the Subic Bay rape case prompted a group of petitioners, including lawyers and former lawmakers, to seek a High Court ruling on the legality of the VFA.
“Unless abrogated, the VFA treats Filipinos as second class citizens in their own country,” the petitioners said in a statement published in Philippine newspapers on Thursday.
They also charged that the VFA was seeking to re-establish the permanent presence of U.S. troops in the country.
In 1992, nationalist sentiment resulted in a Senate vote rejecting a treaty that would have allowed the U.S. to remain at military bases in the Philippines, including a naval base at Subic Bay and the strategic Clark Airbase.
The country’s vocal left-wing looks back on the 1992 ruling as a major victory for Philippine sovereignty, and harbors deep suspicion that the U.S., with Arroyo’s help, is trying to return by stealth.
Since 2001, the U.S. military has been providing assistance and training to Philippine armed forces fighting an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist gang, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), in the south of the archipelago.
The ASG has been responsible for numerous hostage-takings and killings, including bombings and beheadings, with Catholic priests and nuns and American and other foreign tourists among their victims.
On Wednesday, the group threatened to decapitate one of three Red Cross workers it is currently holding hostage on the southern island of Jolo, unless the military stops engaging them in battle.
The group later offered to free one of the three, if the military pulled back from their deployment near the terrorists’ jungle stronghold.
The three aid workers, an Italian, a Swiss and a Filipina, were captured two months ago.
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