Some Balikatan projects could continue
January 4, 2007
WASHINGTON — The United States will likely take part in small portions of a joint military exercise with Philippine forces in February, but not resume the full exercise, as was reported in media outlets in the Philippines.
The annual exercise, Balikatan, was canceled Dec. 22 after a Philippine judge ruled that Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, an Okinawa-based Marine convicted of raping a Philippine woman, would remain in a Manila jail while he appealed his conviction and 40-year sentence.
But the Philippine government decided Smith’s detention violated the Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs the conduct of U.S. forces there. Smith was transferred Friday from the Manila jail to the U.S. Embassy.
“The field training exercise associated with Balikatan is canceled,” said Pacific Command spokesman Lt. Col. Bill Bigelow, referring to large-scale training involving thousands of U.S. troops.
“There may be some associated projects that will possibly continue,” Bigelow said, such as road repair and fixing schools, but that will involve a fraction of the usual number of troops.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Manila has been reported as saying that Washington had decided to proceed with the exercise.
Philippine officials defended their decision Tuesday, and a lawyer for the victim filed a contempt of court complaint against them.
The victim’s lawyer, Evalyn Ursua, alleged that the Philippine secretaries of the interior and justice violated the order of the Court of Appeals to keep Smith in Philippine custody.
A 23-year-old Philippine woman accused Smith of sexually assaulting her in November 2005, as three other Marines allegedly cheered him on.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the government had to take action “in order to forestall the further deterioration in our strategic relationship with the United States.”
“I wish to appeal for understanding from the people that this action will not affect the substantive issues at bar, nor impede justice and the rule of law,” Arroyo said in a statement.
About 50 protesters, most of them women, burned an American flag near the U.S. Embassy and called Smith “a fugitive.”
The case has strained relations and tested a joint military pact between the two countries, under which U.S. troops have trained Philippine forces in counterterrorism tactics.
That training has been credited with helping local forces make gains against Muslim extremists. But left-wing groups have staged regular protests outside the U.S. Embassy, claiming the American servicemen were getting special treatment, undercutting the country’s sovereignty.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told a news conference that the government had no choice but to hand Smith over because it had to respect the bilateral military pact.
“We are telling the world that we are complying with our treaty obligations,” Puno said.
A provision in the VFA states that any accused U.S. servicemember shall remain in American custody until all judicial proceedings are exhausted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.