The ‘hurried’ faces of Harry Roque

Harry Roque

President Rodrigo Duterte’s granting of absolute pardon to U.S. marine Joseph Scott Pemberton on Sept. 7 placed his spokesman Harry Roque in an awkward situation. A man with self-respect and delicadeza would have quit his position when in such an uncomfortable situation.

Roque, who made a name as an activist law professor at the University of the Philippines and a crusading lawyer who took up cases for the underprivileged and powerless like Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old Filipino transgender woman.

On Oct. 11, 2014, Laude was killed by then 19-year-old Pemberton, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps who was taking part in joint military exercises in the Philippines. Laude and Pemberton met at a disco bar in Olongapo and proceeded to a motel nearby. Pemberton was there on recreation while his ship was docked at Subic Bay Freeport, former home of what was once the largest US naval base outside the United States.

Court records would show that several minutes after the two checked in at the motel, Pemberton hurriedly left the room and Laude’s partially naked body was later found, with her head dunked in a toilet bowl and her neck blackened with strangulation marks. Laude was reported to have died of asphyxiation by drowning.

Roque staked his legal profession in the course of defending Laude. He faced disbarment for allegedly prodding the trans woman’s German fiancée Marc Sueselbeck and sister Marilou to enter a secured area within Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City by climbing its fence and demanding to see Pemberton. He stayed on the case up to Pemberton’s conviction for homicide in December 2015.

So, when news broke that the Olongapo Regional Trial Court granted Pemberton on Sept. 1 an early release despite having served only nearly five years of his six- to 10-year sentence, Roque was outraged.

In a virtual press briefing on Sept. 3, Roque, asserting his position as the President’s spokesperson, said the Olongapo court’s decision contradicted the recommendation of the Bureau of Corrections and that the executive branch must be given a chance to move for a reconsideration. He even described the court’s decision as an “instance of judicial overreach,” citing that an allowance for good conduct is an executive function.

And then, Roque showed his other persona. "As former private prosecutor for the Laude family, I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner," he said.

Four days later, Duterte said he had granted absolute pardon to Pemberton and even justified it by claiming that the former American serviceman “was not treated fairly.”

You were probably imagining that Roque was squirming in his seat while hearing his master announce such a decision. In fact, netizens pondered on Twitter how Roque would react to Duterte’s decision, considering his earlier statement and that he once served as counsel for the Laude family during the trial.

But, no! Roque hurriedly accepted the decision and even justified it. “The President did not erase Pemberton’s conviction. He still killed someone. But whatever the penalty is, the President erased that,” he pointed out.

On Thursday, Roque, the president’s spokesman and former counsel for the Laude family, hastened to express his “personal opinion” that Duterte’s granting of absolute pardon to Pemberton was probably meant to gain access to the vaccine against the coronavirus disease being developed by American pharmaceutical companies.

From calling the Olongapo RTC’s early release of Pemberton as “deplorable” and an incident of “judicial overreach,” Roque has hurriedly changed his tune to justify Duterte’s grant of absolute pardon as a decision “grounded on national interest.”

There you go, Harry Roque showing his three personas in an issue that he once valiantly took up. If it’s any consolation, at least he says in what capacity he was speaking when making public statements.

It was not, however, surprising as Roque had, in other cases he used to advocate, conveniently turned around to toe the administration line.

It would seem that he did not mind at all that there was clearly a conflict of interest issue between his position then as private counsel for Laude and now that he is the official spokesperson of the President.

He once advocated respect for human rights and dignity. But that was before his political ambition consumed him.

Now that Pemberton had been deported back to the United States, we wonder what face would Roque be showing the next time he speaks about Jennifer Laude’s killing. Luck may still be on his side because Duterte has not asked him to go on “perpetual isolation” and kiss his political ambition goodbye.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.

This column also appeared in The Manila Times.

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