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U.S. Marine to go on trial for killing Filipino, but charge unclear

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[October 27, 2014]  MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines will put a U.S. Marine on trial for killing a transgender Filipino outside a former U.S. Navy base but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to charge him with murder or the lesser crime of homicide.

Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton failed to answer a murder complaint filed by police on Monday, the deadline set by prosecutors, leaving it to the prosecution to determine what charge he faces.

Pemberton skipped the prosecutor's preliminary investigation in Olongapo City, north of Manila, but his lawyer, Rowena Garcia-Flores, said that any planned murder charge should be reduced to homicide, or killing without intent.

"Do not teach us what to do," Olongapo chief prosecutor Emelie Fe delos Santos told Pemberton's lawyer, a conversation carried live on TV. "We will base our resolution on the evidence that we've gathered. We should respect the process."

Delos Santos said prosecutors would inspect the crime scene on November 5 before deciding whether a murder or homicide charge be brought.

A transgender Filipino was found dead on Oct. 11 inside a hotel toilet in Olongapo City. Pemberton was named a suspect. He is detained at a U.S. facility at the main Philippine army base in Manila.

The crime has added to pressure on the government of President Benigno Aquino to renegotiate the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), testing the two allies' security relations as they face growing tensions in the South China Sea.

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"The VFA allows the U.S. military to act in wanton disregard for Philippine sovereignty ... and violates the human rights and dignity of the Filipino people," said Congressman Walden Bello of Akbayan Party, an ally of the president.

Bello on Monday filed a joint resolution in the lower house of Congress seeking to terminate the treaty because it "has not served the interests of the Philippines".

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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