The transfer of a US marine convicted of raping a Filipina to the US embassy has angered Philippine activists and surprised a government official, who Saturday questioned the move's legal basis.
Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was transferred from the city jail in suburban Makati city to the US embassy in the capital Manila just before midnight.
The move occurred despite calls by various groups that he remain in detention in a Philippine jail.
About 200 protesters staged a picket outside the US embassy, waving placards calling US President George W. Bush and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo "the king and queen of rapists."
Arroyo's chief legal counsel Sergio Apostol said the transfer was authorized by the Bureau of Jail Management.
He added it was allowed under the original order of Judge Benjamin Pozon, who sentenced Smith to 40 years in jail on December 4 for the rape of a Filipina last year.
"The decision of Judge Pozon was that the detention of Smith at Makati city jail was temporary and that he can be transferred after an agreement between the Philippines and the United States is reached," Apostol said.
Apostol said that decision had been complied with after Philippine foreign secretary Alberto Romulo and US ambassador Kristie Kenney signed such an accord earlier this month.
|US Marine Corporal Daniel Smith(L) in handcuffs, is escorted by Philippines policemen.|
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, US soldiers charged with a crime in the Philippines should remain in US custody until the end of "legal proceedings" against them.
Both the US and Philippine governments interpret this to mean that Smith should remain in the US embassy's custody until the appeals process in his case is exhausted.
However, critics say he should be jailed immediately following his conviction and oppose his move into US custody.
Zosimo Paredes, the executive director of a commission overseeing the VFA, said that the transfer was "irregular". He said that only Pozon's court could order Smith's transfer.
But Interior Undersecretary Marius Corpus said that Pozon's ruling indicated Smith could be transferred if both governments signed an agreement and that "there is no legal obstacle to turning over Smith to the US embassy."
The transfer follows a dispute between the US government and the Philippine courts, which had originally refused to hand the soldier to the US embassy as requested.
The United States had cancelled its annual joint military exercises with the Philippines in 2007 in protest at the refusal to hand Smith over, in a blow to the Arroyo government.
US embassy spokesman Matt Lussenhop said the exercises were still cancelled and could not say if they might resume now that Smith has been transferred.
He remarked that "we don't have an issue with the verdict in the case. It was an issue of the custody under the VFA."
Smith's victim, identified only as "Nicole", said in a radio interview that the transfer of the marine was a betrayal of the entire country.
"I am dismayed by our government. From the start, I have wanted our fellow Filipinos to understand what I am fighting for. This is not just my struggle, it is a struggle for all of us," she said.
"They should say our own government cannot protect us. America is better because they can protect their criminals," she remarked.
Leftist groups threatened to file criminal charges against the officials who authorized the transfer, adding that Smith's removal late at night was "a treacherous and cowardly act."
The convicted marine said he had consensual sex with the Filipina in the back of a van following military exercises last year.