Custody Dispute in Rape Case Causes Cancellation of US-Philippines Military Exercises

The United States has cancelled large-scale military exercises in the Philippines scheduled for next year in an escalating dispute over custody of a U.S. Marine convicted of raping a local woman. Douglas Bakshian has more from Manila.

U.S. embassy spokesman Matthew Lussenhop says the military exercises scheduled for February are cancelled, because of the dispute over the custody of a convicted U.S. marine. Called the Balikatan 2007 war games, these usually involve as many as 5,000 U.S. troops, and are a sign of the close ties between the two long-standing allies.

However, 21-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith is being held in a Manila jail - instead of U.S. custody - after being convicted this month of raping a Filipina. He is appealing the conviction.

Both Washington and Manila agree that under the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries he is to be in U.S. custody while judicial procedures continue. But a local court effectively ruled against this, and the Philippine Court of Appeals on Tuesday rejected a petition by Smith to be transferred immediately into U.S. custody.

Embassy spokesman Lussenhop told local television that under the circumstances the Balikatan exercise has been called off.

"With the current custody issue still working its way through the judicial system, the usual framework for U.S. service members coming and visiting the Philippines remains in doubt," he said. "So until the Philippine government courts can ensure that the Philippines is in full compliance with the Visiting Forces Agreement, it just would not be prudent to bring a large number of additional U.S. troops here for exercises at this time."

Lussenhop says other small exercises involving American service personnel, including humanitarian missions in the southern Philippines, will continue. He said the United States will consider future military activities as it monitors the custody case.

Corporal Smith was convicted of rape earlier this month and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Three other Marines accused in the case were acquitted. They say only Smith had sex with the woman, which was consensual, and argued that the woman was being manipulated to incriminate them.

The case prompted protests in the Philippines against the country's close military relationship with the U.S.