MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte "upon his own volition" pardoned a US soldier who killed a Filipina transgender--a decision that "surprised" even Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, he said Wednesday.
American Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton has been in prison since the October 2014 killing of Jennifer Laude, whom he met at a bar while on break from military exercises in the northern city of Olongapo.
The justice department on Monday questioned a court ruling that Pemberton qualified for early release due to good behavior, just hours before Duterte announced the absolute pardon for the US lance corporal.
Before the announcement, Guevarra said Duterte gave him the "same explanation" he later told the public. The President, in a televised speech, had said he heard about Pemberton's case in the news and that he was "not treated fairly."
"He (Duterte) didn’t explain who prompted him… It appeared to me that it was upon his own volition," Guevarra told ANC. "He must have been following this issue and then on his own, decided to grant the pardon to end it all."
He said he was "a bit taken aback... a bit surprised" about the development.
"But since he immediately explained why he was deciding to grant absolute pardon to Mr. Pemberton, I found it kind of awkward for me to question his personal judgement after hearing what he said, which I did not find to be objectionable anyway. He had some point," said the justice secretary.
"I thought it was improper for me to question it because that’s really a personal act of grace, a personal act of clemency on his part. That is still an official function, so to speak. So I just didn’t say anything further since he had already appeared to make up his mind," he added.
"Nothing" in the constitution bars the President from granting clemency "even without an application" for it, said Guevarra.
"The President also has some basis in his own mind, in his own judgement as to why he’s deciding to grant pardon to anyone. Hindi naman capricious o whimsical ang pag-grant n’yan," he said.
(The grant was not capricious or whimsical.)
Pemberton had admitted to choking Laude after finding out she had male genitals following an intimate act. Her body was found in an Olongapo City hotel, head slumped in a toilet bowl.
Duterte's pardon clears all legal obstacles to the soldier's release, despite him serving just over half his 10-year sentence.
The pardon has renewed anti-American sentiment in the Philippines, where groups have long called for the removal of US military presence.
Renato Reyes, leader of the leftist group Bayan, criticized the president's remarks and condemned Pemberton's "special treatment."
"If Filipinos want pardon... they need to undergo a long process. The American soldier that killed a Filipino was given an express lane," he tweeted.
The pardon came despite Duterte shifting away from the US to seek closer relations with China since assuming power in 2016.
-- With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse