MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- The Philippine president pardoned a U.S. Marine on Monday in a surprise move that will free him from imprisonment in the 2014 killing of a transgender Filipino woman that sparked anger in the former American colony.
President Rodrigo Duterte said he decided to pardon Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton because the Marine was not treated fairly after opponents blocked his early release for good conduct in detention.
A left-wing human rights group, Karapatan, immediately condemned the pardon as a "despicable and shameless mockery of justice and servility to U.S. imperialist interests."
Pemberton was convicted of homicide and has been serving a prison term of six to 10 years for the killing of Jennifer Laude in a motel in Olongapo city, northwest of Manila. His lawyer, Rowena Garcia-Flores, told The Associated Press that Pemberton was already aware of Duterte's decision when she called him.
"I heard the news," Garcia-Flores quoted the 25-year-old Pemberton as saying. "I'm very happy."
Meeting Pemberton in detention a few days ago, she said he expressed his willingness to apologize to the Laude family even belatedly. Pemberton would likely be removed from the Marines due to his conviction and plans to work in the U.S., Garcia-Flores added.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who once served as a lawyer for the Laude family, said the presidential pardon would mean the immediate release of Pemberton from detention.
"The president has erased the punishment that should be imposed on Pemberton. What the president did not erase was the conviction of Pemberton. He's still a killer," Roque told reporters.
Laude's family denounced Duterte's action as a grave injustice, including to the LGBTQ community, family lawyer Virginia Suarez said.
Duterte is one of the most vocal critics in Southeast Asia of U.S. security policies. But on Monday he said, "If there is a time where you are called upon to be fair, be fair."
Last week, the Regional Trial Court in Olongapo city, which handled Pemberton's case, ordered authorities to release him early from detention for good conduct, but Laude's family appealed, blocking the Marine's early release. Roque said the Department of Justice was planning a separate appeal.
The court order rekindled perceptions that American military personnel who run afoul of Philippine laws can get special treatment under the allies' Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides the legal framework for temporary visits by U.S. forces to the country for large-scale combat exercises.
Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the country in 2014.
He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercises and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a city known for its nightlife outside Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base.
Laude was later found dead, her head slumped in a toilet bowl in a motel room, where witnesses said she and Pemberton had checked in. A witness told investigators that Pemberton said he choked Laude after discovering she was transgender.
In December 2015, a judge convicted Pemberton of homicide, not the more serious charge of murder that prosecutors sought. The Olongapo court judge said at the time that she downgraded the charge because factors such as cruelty and treachery had not been proven.
Pemberton has been serving his sentence in a compound jointly guarded by Philippine and American security personnel at the main military camp in metropolitan Manila. The place of detention was agreed to under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement, although Laude's family had demanded that he be held in an ordinary jail.
Garcia-Flores said his detention was shortened by authorities under a Philippine law that allows the reduction of prison terms for good conduct. Suarez said the law cannot apply to Pemberton, who has been detained alone in a military camp and given other special privileges under the VFA.
The case has led to calls from some in the Philippines to end the U.S. military presence in the country, a former American colony with which Washington has a mutual defense treaty.