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PHILIPPINES/US: Women’s Groups Back Recanting Rape Victim

Stella Gonzales

MANILA, Mar 18 2009 (IPS) - Nicole, the Filipina who accused a United States serviceman of raping her in 2005, has recanted her testimony, but women’s groups supporting her in the case do not see this development as a defeat.

“Even if she recanted, no one can deny that the trial court’s decision [finding Lance Corporal Daniel Smith guilty] is a victory not only to the women’s movement but to all Filipinos,” Joms Salvador, spokesperson of the women’s group ‘Gabriela,’ told IPS.

“The new developments cannot deny our triumph [in the rape case]. We were able to show that we can fight.”

Salvador said Gabriela understood Nicole’s action, saying it was a “classic” example of how victims of sexual abuse would blame themselves for the rape. “Her dignity had been destroyed [by the rape]. We understand her action,” Salvador said. “We have worked with similar cases before.”

Gabriela has for the past 25 years been working with women victims of violence.

“Nicole is not the first and will not be the last rape victim to recant,” said Gabriela’s secretary-general, Emmi de Jesus.

Nicole (not her real name) terminated the services of her lawyer and gave a sworn statement on Mar. 2 where she raised doubts whether Smith had actually raped her and if she might have actually welcomed his sexual advances.

“My conscience continues to bother me…[and] I may have in fact been so friendly and intimate with [him]…that he was led to believe that I was amenable to having sex or that we simply just got carried away,” her statement said.

Salvador said Gabriela was not really surprised with Nicole’s move. “It is no secret that all throughout the rape case her family had been receiving settlement offers from several parties. Her mother was very vocal about those attempts to settle,” she said.

Aside from recanting her testimony, Nicole has flown to the U.S. According to her mother, Nicole, 24, wanted to start a new life with her American boyfriend. U.S. visas are not that easy to get in the Philippines, making pundits wonder when Nicole applied for a visa and what type had been given to her.

Nicole has also received 100,000 pesos (2,000 US dollars) from Smith who had been previously ordered by the trial court to pay the victim a total of 100,000 pesos in compensatory and moral damages.

Smith, who was participating in joint military exercises with local troops at the time of the rape, was sentenced by a trial court to 40 years’ imprisonment. He is currently being held – as agreed upon by Philippine and American authorities – at the U.S. Embassy compound in Manila. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled that he should be detained in a facility run by the Philippine government.

Salvador found it suspicious that Nicole’s recantation came after U.S President Barack Obama placed a phone call to President Gloria Arroyo last Saturday during which the two leaders reportedly discussed various matters, including the controversial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The VFA covers the conduct of U.S. troops participating in joint military exercises in the Philippines.

“It was too smoothly executed that one cannot believe that [Obama’s] call had nothing to do with what happened,” Salvador said.

Renato Reyes Jr., secretary-general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) or Bayan, said Nicole’s recantation was “part of a grand design to preserve the VFA at all costs. She was a sacrificial lamb in order to preserve U.S. interests.”

He said the Philippine and U.S. governments believe that declaring Smith innocent “will weaken the people’s case against the VFA.”

The rape case was used as a springboard when groups and individuals, including Nicole, questioned the constitutionality of the VFA before the Supreme Court. While the high court ruled last month that Smith must be detained in a Philippine-run facility, a majority of the justices also upheld the legality of the VFA.

Reyes said Bayan will continue to work for the abrogation of the VFA, saying their campaign is now “more urgent given that a Smith acquittal is in the works’’.

Salvador said the twist in the rape case will not deter Gabriela in its fight for women’s dignity and rights. “The struggle should be seen beyond Nicole,” she said.

Nicole’s recantation came less than three weeks after the dismissal of another rape case filed by a Filipina against an American soldier, this time in Okinawa, Japan.

A U.S. military court dismissed the case against army specialist Ronald Hopstock for insufficiency of evidence. It was the second setback for the victim, Hazel (not her real name), who had previously lost a criminal case she filed before a Japanese court last year.

Hazel, who was then 21, was working in Japan as a dancer. She said she was raped by Hopstock inside a hotel in Okinawa. Gabriela had condemned the decision of the U.S. court martial as an “act of arrogance” of the U.S. government.

As if the setbacks on the two rape cases were not enough, another high-profile sexual abuse case, this time involving a Filipino member of Congress, hit the headlines on Wednesday. Romeo Jalosjos had been given his release papers after serving 11 years in prison for raping a minor in 1996.

Jalosjos was sentenced in 1997 to two life-terms for two counts of statutory rape and six counts of acts of lasciviousness. In 2007, his sentence was commuted by Arroyo to 16 years, a move seen by the president’s critics as political accommodation.

Last Wednesday, prison officials said Jalosjos has already served 16 years because he has accumulated “good conduct time allowances.” They said Jalosjos had provided skills programmes and legal and medical outreach activities for his co-inmates.

The Jalosjos case was closely followed by Gabriela. In 2007, the group questioned the commutation of the child rapist’s sentence and demanded an inquiry into the executive department’s criteria for “good conduct.”

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