Criminal Rape or Philippine Nationalism?

Sympathizing with convicted rapists is more controversial than appealing for the release of journalists accused of revealing state secrets but it is hard not to see the reflection of the tortured state of Philippine-American relations in the case of US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith. This 21-year-old was recently sentenced to 40 years in jail for the rape in the back of a van of a 23-year-old woman in Olongapo, the raunchy bargirl town that abuts Subic Bay, the former US naval base.

This will not be the first time that accusations of rape have been used by opponents of the US military presence in the Philippines, as elsewhere, to promote a political agenda. Young servicemen who have drunk too much are all too easily assumed to have forced themselves on unwilling local women.

In this case, the Philippine and US governments appear to have played into the hands of leftists and nationalists all too eager to use the case to drum up anti-American emotions and pressure President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to abandon her country’s forces cooperation agreement with the US. It has already caused the US to cancel a joint military exercise. Some women’s groups have also latched onto the case with immediate assumptions of guilt. The whole trial and subsequent events have been carried on in a blaze of publicity and emotion reminiscent of the OJ Simpson case in the US.

Inviting US forces to help suppress Abu Sayyaf and Muslim insurgency in the south and otherwise cooperate militarily was always going to be a risky undertaking. Arroyo gained more plaudits from President George W. Bush than she ever did from her countrymen. It revived memories of the political struggles that led to the removal of the permanent US bases in 1992 and re-ignited the tension within Philippine society between those who grovel to America and those consumed with resentment of the old colonial master.

Now Smith may be the one paying the price. The accuser’s evidence against him was uncorroborated and three companions of Smith who were present in the van testified that the sex was consensual. All parties were said to be drunk at the time. Though present, Smith’s companions were acquitted of being accomplices. The 40-year sentence handed down was also seen as vastly in excess of the norm for rape offences in the Philippines.

Sympathy for Smith is widespread among Filipinos who are all too well aware how often justice is influenced by political and other non-judicial considerations. But nationalist sentiments have also been further fanned by an unseemly dispute over where Smith should be held. Under a US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, military personnel charged with offences are held by the US pending trial but if convicted must serve any sentence locally. Smith is appealing the verdict against him but a judge has ruled that unless and until the conviction is overturned he should be held in a Philippine jail. This has been disputed by the US, with the backing of Arroyo. The two governments have asked the Court of Appeal to release Smith into US custody.

This custody dispute is unfortunate. It is fanning nationalist flames and makes it look as though Smith expects special treatment as a “white American” as one newspaper put it. It diverts attention from the strong likelihood is that Smith is a victim of the political and emotional divide in Philippine attitudes to the US. Meanwhile the US can do nothing about the original verdict without appearing to be in contempt of the Philippines judicial system, an attitude which, however justified, would put the visiting forces agreement in jeopardy. So Smith looks likely to be sacrificed to political opportunism on all sides.