MANILA, Philippines?The Filipino woman who accused an American Marine of raping her in November 2005 has not only recanted more than two years after winning a conviction but has also accepted money from him and flown to the United States for good.
This happened amid resurgent controversy over the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows temporary US military presence in the Philippines.
At a press conference Tuesday, lawyer Evalyn Ursua said she was informed on Monday by the mother of her client, ?Nicole,? that she had been dropped as legal counsel.
But Ursua promised to continue fighting the VFA and to assist other Filipino women in similar straits.
She said Nicole?s mother had handed her a letter terminating her legal services.
?Since it was Nicole and not her family who was my client, I asked Nicole?s mother why Nicole didn?t personally see me to hand the letter, or even give me a call. She replied that Nicole left for the US last week, for good,? the lawyer said.
Nicole also issued a sworn statement on March 12 saying she expected her motives to be questioned.
She raised doubts that US Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith had raped her, and suggested that she might have welcomed his sexual advances at the Neptune Club in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.
She added: ?My conscience continues to bother me realizing that I may have in fact been so friendly and intimate with Daniel Smith at the Neptune Club that he was led to believe that I was amenable to having sex or that we simply just got carried away.?
Question of custody
In December 2006, Judge Benjamin Pozon of the Regional Trial Court in Makati City convicted Smith of raping Nicole and sentenced him to up to 40 years behind bars.
Smith was held at the Makati City Jail; within days he was transferred clandestinely to the US Embassy in Manila, where he continues to stay.
The question of who should have custody over Smith was again raised when the Supreme Court ruled recently that he should be held in a Philippine-run facility while awaiting the result of his appeal.
The high court?s ruling ? along with the US Embassy?s stalling ? has triggered calls for review or abrogation of the VFA, which governs the conduct of US soldiers engaged in joint military exercises in the Philippines.
On the phone, US Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson refused to comment on reports that Nicole had flown to the United States.
?We have seen media reports but we have no further information on this for you,? Thompson said.
Nicole has also issued a receipt and release document indicating that she had received P100,000 from Smith.
She said that with her receipt of the money, Smith, his heirs and successors-in-interest were released from any and all claims and compensatory damages awarded to her in connection with the civil aspect of the soldier?s conviction of rape.
?It is understood that the payment of the abovementioned amount was strictly voluntary on the part of Daniel Smith and shall not in any way be construed as admission of liability, of whatever nature, on the part of Daniel Smith notwithstanding that the latter?s appeal ? is still pending resolution,? the receipt and release document read.
The document is among a number of papers submitted yesterday by Smith?s lawyer, Jose Justiniano, to the Court of Appeals.
Indictment of justice system
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who had filed a resolution in the Senate seeking the abrogation of the VFA, called on the court to act immediately on Smith?s appeal.
Pangilinan said he found it ?terribly disheartening? that Nicole had left for the United States.
?We cannot blame Nicole and her family,? he said in a statement, adding that this development was ?an indictment of our justice system that is perceived to favor the wealthy and the powerful and ? to be biased against the ordinary folks like Nicole.?
Pangilinan pointed out that the state was responsible for disposing of cases swiftly and fairly.
?Nicole did not fail us; our justice system did,? he said, stressing that many people had given up on the Philippine justice system and should not be blamed for doing so.
Nicole?s case ?represents the tens of thousands of cases languishing in our courts, in the Office of the Ombudsman and our prosecutors? offices nationwide,? Pangilinan said.
Ursua said Nicole and her family were ?tired of the case.?
?They do not want to be bothered by it anymore because, they said, ?there is no justice in the Philippines,?? she said.
Asked about speculation on why Nicole had chosen to leave, Ursua said: ?As a lawyer, I have to respect the decision. The others can say their speculations; I cannot.?
Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of the militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), raised the suspicion that the US government had pressured Nicole, her family and the Philippine government into arriving at the decision.
?One can?t help but speculate that the US was really moving to pressure them,? Reyes said in an interview.
?What the family said ? that there is no justice in the Philippines ? is a slap on the face of Gloria President Macapagal-Arroyo. It is a clear statement that [the government] failed to give justice, especially with the issue of custody over Smith.?
Reyes also said it was not farfetched that the US and Philippine governments were working to ensure that the VFA would remain in effect.
He cited such purported signals as US President Barack Obama?s telephone call to Ms Arroyo on Saturday and Ursua?s removal as Nicole?s lawyer.
The fight continues
Ursua said her involvement in the anti-VFA campaign did not end just because Nicole had left the country and terminated the contract with her lawyer.
?Nicole was a strong symbol of Filipino women who have suffered. But it doesn?t mean that the Junk VFA movement [will not prosper] because she?s gone,? Ursua said.
The lawyer said that should there be another Nicole, she would be more than willing to take up the cudgels for her: ?The fight against the VFA should not be limited to one woman.?
In a signed statement that she read during the launch of the Junk VFA movement, Ursua said another Nicole could arise and the fight against the VFA and the presence of US troops must go on.
?While I have ceased to be Nicole?s lawyer, I, as a citizen who loves this country, remain committed to the cause of obtaining justice in Nicole?s case and putting an end to the VFA,? Ursua said, adding:
?The Nicole that I and the other lawyers represented is beyond the woman that Nicole and her family thought she is. Nicole is every Filipina who was and will be raped by American soldiers.?
Ursua said rape was a public crime and the family?s personal decision regarding the case should be immaterial.
?It is now up to the Court of Appeals to decide the case on the basis of the evidence presented. Regardless of all the political maneuverings that attend this case, I and all who fought the good fight for Nicole know that ultimately, justice will prevail,? she said in her statement.
Ursua said Nicole?s mother handed her a letter at around 5:30 p.m. on Monday, purportedly from her client.
?It reads that it serves as Nicole?s ?notice of termination of my services as her counsel in the criminal case? against Daniel Smith and ?all other cases arising from or related? to it,? the lawyer said.
Nicole also thanked Ursua ?for all the time and effort that you have devoted to the prosecution of the case.?
Ursua told the Inquirer that the last time she spoke with Nicole was in February.
?I do not even know which state she is living in,? Ursua said.
Bayan?s Reyes said he learned of Nicole?s flight on Monday afternoon and that he, like the other anti-VFA proponents, was ?shocked.?
?We were really shocked at the news ? But everybody knew that there was probably pressure,? he said.
Similar comments were aired by Sen. Jamby Madrigal and Gabriela Rep. Liza Maza.
Said Maza: ?I hope the US did not exert pressure on her, although that can be possible. It is suspicious that she is going there. Many suspect a compromise agreement crafted between the US and Malacañang. Nevertheless, I understand Nicole. We should not blame the victim here. She was not protected by the government.?
Said Madrigal: ?Perhaps there was a deal that was too good to refuse.? With reports from TJ Burgonio, Christine O. Avendaño, Leila B. Salaverria and Cynthia D. Balana