April 28, 2006

Marines decline to enter plea in Manila rape case

MANILA (Reuters) - Four U.S. Marines accused of raping a
22-year-old Filipina, a case that has thrown U.S. military
relations with a former colony into the spotlight, appeared in
court on Friday but did not enter a plea.

The Marines, being held in the custody of the U.S. embassy
in the capital, deny the charges filed in December, saying only
one of them had sex with the woman and that it was consensual.

But Judge Benjamin Pozon threw out an earlier
recommendation by the justice department to reduce the charges
against three of the accused to mere accessories to rape,
cheering anti-U.S. protesters outside the court.

Lance Corporals Dominic Duplantis, Keith Silkwood, Daniel
Smith and Staff Sergeant Chad Carpentier said nothing when the
court asked them to enter a plea.

The rape case has prompted small protests outside the U.S.
embassy in Manila and calls by some politicians for the 1998
Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows the presence of U.S.
troops in the Philippines, to be amended or scrapped.

Some politicians and groups have called for a review of the
agreement, saying it gives too much protection to U.S. troops
accused of committing crimes.

But analysts see little long-term damage to ties between
the United States and a former U.S. colony and Washington's
closest security partner in Southeast Asia.

Pozon entered a "not guilty" plea for the Marines, but
turned down a prosecution call to issue a warrant of arrest to
force the U.S. embassy in Manila to turn them over to a local

Defense lawyer Jose Justiniano said they would appeal
against the judge's decision to charge the four with rape.

But about 50 members of a left-wing women's group, who
staged a noisy rally outside a high-rise building housing the
court, carrying placards and shouting "jail the Yankees," said
they were happy with the judge's decision.

"We rejoice, we celebrate the decision not to downgrade the
charges against the three Marines," Joms Salvador, one of the
rally organizers, told Reuters.

"We will still be watching developments."

Pozon set the next hearing for May 12.

(With reporting by Anna Margarita Pambid and Jesus Llanto)