Arrest warrants against four US Marines accused of raping a Filipina have been withdrawn because the men are now in US custody under a bilateral accord, a Philippine judge said.
The US embassy last week rejected Manila's request to take custody of the Marines, invoking a provision of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) giving the embassy the right to hold any US military personnel facing charges in the Philippines.
The rejection angered Philippine politicians and prompted a congressional committee to issue a resolution seeking the abrogation of the agreement, which also allows large-scale US military exercises in the country.
However, Judge Renato Dilag of the Regional Trial Court in Olongapo city said the Marines being held by the US embassy equated to them being held by the Philippines.
Dilag noted that neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Foreign Affairs tried to serve the arrest warrants after the embassy took them into custody.
"The accused are supposed to be already under the custody of the court when they surrendered to the proper authorities -- the US embassy -- as called for in the VFA," Dilag said.
"The VFA is a treaty which is now part of the law of the land," he said.
Dilag also said he will set a hearing date for the four men once the Justice Department has ruled on their petition to review the indictment.
Prosecutors allege that Lance Corporal Daniel Smith raped a 22-year-old woman on Nov. 1 inside a van at Subic Bay, a former US Naval base adjacent to Olongapo northwest of Manila, as fellow Marines cheered him on. Smith claims he only had consensual sex.
Also charged were Lance Corporal Keith Silkwood, Lance Corporal Dominic Duplantis and Staff Sergeant Chad Carpentier, part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan.