The commander of US forces in the Pacific announced on Thursday that he had canceled a huge, annual military exercise with the Philippines in a dispute over custody of a Marine lance corporal convicted of raping a local woman.
Admiral William Fallon said he also would halt aid and reconstruction programs carried out by the US military in the Philippines until he was confident that the troops' legal rights would be protected under bilateral agreements governing visiting US forces.
The bilateral pact that governs US forces in the Philippines, the Visiting Forces Agreement, requires that US military personnel be held in US custody during criminal proceedings, including appeals, until a final resolution of the matter.
But after Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was convicted of rape and sentenced earlier this month, a judge ordered him held in local police custody even though his case went straight to appeal.
The rape case, which concluded on Dec. 4 with a conviction and a sentence of 40 years in prison, has tested relations between the two countries and challenged the validity of the bilateral agreement.
In a telephone interview from Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Fallon said he had ordered the withdrawal of an aid team in the Philippines assessing needs of an area ravaged by a typhoon.
He said he also had canceled a number of visits by US ships.
US military officers said the Philippine armed forces supported the legal position of the US, and the political officer at the Philippines Embassy in Washington agreed on Thursday that the US position was correct.
"Regarding the Corporal Smith case, the US government and the executive branch of the Philippines government are on the same side of this issue," said Patricia Paez, the embassy's political officer.
Paez said responsibility for the dispute rested with the judicial branch of her government.
"Just like the United States, we have a separation of branches of government that are co-equal and independent," Paez said.
In a decision with repercussions for regional counterterrorism efforts, Fallon said he had canceled the field exercise portions of this year's bilateral military exercise, which was to begin in coming weeks and was to involve US and Philippine troops.
"I'm not the judge of the guilt or innocence of the individual," Fallon said. "The issue is only one of custody."
The cancelation of the exercise and other US military visits jeopardizes disease-prevention programs, water-purification efforts and counterterrorism cooperation between the two nations.
The rape case dates to Nov. 1 of last year, when, according to testimony at the trial, four marines took a 22-year-old woman from a bar to a van, where one of them raped her.
During the trial, Smith did not deny having sex with the woman, but said it was consensual. However, witnesses testified that the woman was so drunk that she could not have agreed to sex, with one witness saying Smith had carried her to the van.
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