November 02, 2006

Subic rape case, a year after

Nicole is the pseudonym used by the Filipino victim in the sensational rape case involving “visiting” US troops out for some “rest and recreation” in Subic, formerly the biggest US naval base outside the US mainland. Almost a year after the incident, she appears to be a normal, comely young woman, in the flush of life. But that life came to a standstill close to a year ago when she came across six US marines who jointly took advantage of her vulnerability, abused her and then dumped her like a used rag on the sidewalk in full view of several witnesses.

In the beginning, Nicole’s case appeared strong. The Filipino driver of the hired van where the rape took place gave corroborating testimony. There were witnesses to how she was lifted out of the van “like a pig” by the soldiers and left on the pavement with her pants and panties down to her knees. They threw out a used condom after her.

There were witnesses on how she was so drunk when the soldiers brought her out of the Neptune Club she couldn’t have given her consent to go along with them much less engage in consensual sex as they claimed in their defense.

She was not a prostitute (not that prostitutes can’t be raped). She had just graduated from a reputable Catholic university and was managing a family-owned canteen inside a Philippine military compound. She had come to Subic, Olongapo City, with three of her siblings, one of them a minor, simply to have a good time. They even had their strict mother’s permission to travel thousands of miles to Luzon from their hometown in Mindanao.

Nicole was warned that her story could be turned upside down. She would likely be portrayed as a “loose woman” out to catch herself a handsome, white American boy and easy passage to the US of A, still the “land of milk and honey” for many Filipinos. Against all odds, including the social stigma of being a rape victim, Nicole decided to pursue her case.

But she hadn’t calculated on the sole Superpower’s latest jingoistic adventure called the “war against terror” and what it meant for the Philippines. She didn’t know that Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the de facto president, had taken on the role of number one bugle girl for US imperialism in Southeast Asia, in an astute bid to shore up her shaky hold on power.

She wasn’t even aware that her case would get caught up in the long-running debate on whether the continuing presence of thousands of US soldiers in the country courtesy of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was good or bad for the country and its people.

Trouble started to appear when Philippine authorities quite easily gave up custody over the six accused soldiers to US authorities. The VFA provisions regarding criminal jurisdiction over erring US soldiers became exposed as inutile guarantees, especially in the hands of a politically servile and legally inept government, that crimes committed by US servicemen in the country would be dealt with under the Philippine criminal justice system.

A hallmark of any self-respecting sovereign country, its primordial right to independently investigate, arrest, prosecute and punish any foreigner accused of committing crimes inside its territory had been effectively ceded to the country’s former colonizer. Meanwhile, the presidential spokesperson warned against “Leftists” whipping up anti-US sentiment in the wake of an “isolated” case.

Despite some noises from government quarters, notably the Senate, calling for a review and even abrogation of the VFA, if it were found, in Nicole’s case, to be prejudicial to Philippine interests, the US government got what it wanted. Custody, the most seasoned Filipino trial lawyers money could buy, and a mandatory one-year trial period during which time it could undertake a well-oiled public relations campaign creating local public opinion favorable to the accused.

The Filipino public would be reminded of how the US armed forces are the bulwark in the “global fight against terrorism” and that US soldiers are “trained to be disciplined ambassadors of good will, sensitive to local culture and values” and could therefore not engage in such a heinous crime as gang rape against a local girl.

Nicole was given the consuelo de bobo of government-provided high-profile women lawyers who, truth be told, appeared to be more concerned about how they looked rather than laying the ground for a successful prosecution of the case. Until Nicole was able to obtain private lawyers willing to work pro bono, whom she could trust, did the uphill struggle to get justice appear to have a glimmer of hope.

The private prosecutors quickly realized however that the justice system could not be relied upon to uphold their client’s rights and legitimate concerns. One legal setback came after another. Only four of the accused and the driver of the van were eventually found by the first fiscal assigned to the case to be liable for the crime of rape. However, the Olongapo judge, in a highly questionable ruling, dropped the driver from being co-accused by saying that the decision to charge him was an afterthought and that this was motivated by the driver’s recantation of parts of his previous testimony favorable to the accused.

Subsequently, Justice Secretary Gonzales ruled that three of the of the four principal co-accused should have the charges against them downgraded. This decision was met with disbelief by the fiscal who engaged Mr. Gonzales in a public argument but who was eventually forced to resign from the case for disagreeing with his boss.

Mr. Gonzales clearly undermined the government’s own case by stating that he would not “bow to the mob” calling for more than one to be charged as part of the conspiracy to commit the crime of rape. He lambasted the Makati City judge who eventually took over the trial and rejected his decision to downgrade.

The new Makati City prosecutors also resigned, likely feeling the heat from the Justice secretary who had made it crystal clear that he would be breathing down their necks during the trial. In their stead, Mr. Gonzales appointed a team from the Justice Department itself headed by a certain State Prosecutor de los Santos. In this way, Mr. Gonzales acquired more direct supervision and control of the public prosecutors and presumably how they would try to win – or lose—the case.

The rest is of public knowledge: how the public prosecutors bungled the cross-examination of Lance Corporal Daniel Smith who admitted to having consensual sex with Nicole; how this provoked the victim and her mother to cry foul and disclose unethical proposals by Prosecutor de los Santos that the victim enter into an out-of-court settlement with the accused; how Ms. De los Santos in turn badmouthed her client on national television as someone who could not be trusted to tell the truth.

Pushed to the wall, Nicole and her mother demanded the replacement of the public prosecution panel but Mr. Gonzales refused. The public prosecutors proceeded to undermine the case with several more highly questionable moves until the trial ended in a climate of betrayal, recrimination and gloom for the victim.

Will Nicole get justice? The US government and the Arroyo administration have done all they can to deny her justice in a court of law. Perhaps only the court of public opinion and the triumph of the Filipino people’s struggle against foreign, imperialist domination will eventually vindicate her and many more like her. ###

*Published in Business World
27-28 October 06


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