MANILA — Women's rights activists accused U.S. and Philippine authorities Wednesday of conspiring to free a U.S. Marine convicted of rape after his alleged victim recanted her assault claims and reportedly moved to the United States.
Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was charged with rape in November 2005 after a 22-year-old Filipina accused him of sexually assaulting her in a van after they drank and danced in the Neptune Club at Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval base.
Smith, of St. Louis, was found guilty in December 2006 after his alleged victim wept on the witness stand as she described being sexually assaulted by Smith as three other Marines cheered him on.
But Suzette Nicolas changed her story in an affidavit that she swore before a Manila notary public this month. Four days later, the woman's mother informed her lawyer, Evalyn Ursua, that Nicolas had flown to the U.S. to live.
"My conscience continues to bother me realizing that I may have in fact been so friendly and intimate with Daniel Smith at the Neptune Club that he was led to believe that I was amenable to having sex or that we simply just got carried away," Nicolas said in her March 12 affidavit.
The high-profile case has rallied opposition here to the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which stipulates when U.S. military or Philippine authorities have jurisdiction over American troops who get into trouble with the law here.
Many Filipinos say the agreement undermines Philippine sovereignty. Protesters frequently demonstrate against the accord outside the U.S. Embassy.
Smith is in detention on the embassy compound, where he was moved after the Philippine government agreed to transfer him from a Manila jail days after he was convicted.
The Philippine Supreme Court ruled last month that the Marine should be returned to the custody of Philippine authorities while he awaits an appeal. The embassy says legal experts in Washington are studying the ruling.
But Liza Maza, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, said the delay, the timing of Nicolas' statement recanting her accusations and her departure for the U.S. suggest a backroom deal was worked out to free Smith.
"Our government and the U.S. government have colluded in order to get this recantation [from Nicolas] to get Smith free and also continue with an unequal Visiting Forces Agreement," Maza said.
Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson declined to comment on the charge. She also refused to disclose details of the visa granted to Nicolas, who was identified in the local media by the pseudonym "Nicole" until her affidavit was made public Tuesday.
Maza, whose Gabriela Women's Party represents numerous rights groups, said activists wanted to know whether there were grounds for obstruction of justice charges "and who are the participants in this whole evil design."
Suspicions of U.S. meddling are especially vexing, Maza said, because President Obama promised the world things would be different.
"With all the brouhaha and all the pronouncements for change, President Obama seems to be of the same color as Bush in terms of his foreign policy and in terms of intervening in the internal affairs of supposedly independent countries," she said.
Nicolas' affidavit was also condemned by the judge who presided over Smith's trial, Benjamin Pozon. "It looks like a mockery of our justice system," he told local television.
But Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez cast doubt Wednesday on the idea that Nicolas' affidavit alone would exonerate Smith.
"I don't think her retraction will result in reversal of the [lower court] conviction of Smith for rape," Gonzalez said in a statement. "It is not considered newly discovered evidence. I do not think it will have a big impact on the case."
In her affidavit, Nicolas said that before meeting Smith at the bar, she had only a slice of pizza to eat and then drank a great deal of alcohol, including vodka and Sprite, a Singapore Sling, a B-52, Long Island iced tea and a Bullfrog.
Nicolas left the Neptune with Smith, who carried her to the van, she said. When she was dropped off later near the Alaba Pier, Nicolas' jeans were down around her ankles and she had bruises on her arms, legs and genitals consistent with rape, the court was told during the Marine's trial.
Smith has insisted that he had consensual sex with Nicolas and that she helped him put on a condom. The court acquitted three other Marines, Staff Sgt. Chad Carpentier, Lance Cpl. Keith Silkwood and Lance Cpl. Dominic Duplantis, along with their Filipino driver. The men had been charged with complicity in the rape.
In her affidavit, Nicolas said she was confused and "scared not only of losing my American boyfriend but the chance of living in the United States" when police took her statement the night of the alleged rape.
"I told the court that Daniel Smith kissed my lips and neck and held my breast inside the van," Nicolas said in her affidavit. "I ask myself now how could I have remembered this if witnesses told the court that I passed out and looked unconscious when I was brought to the van by Daniel Smith.
"How could I have resisted his advances given this condition? Daniel Smith and I were alone on the third row of the van which had limited space and I do not recall anyone inside the van who held my hand or any part of my body. What I can recall is that there was very loud music and shouting inside the van."
That account contrasts starkly with what she described during Smith's trial as a brutal sexual assault.
"His comrades cheered him on and they seemed so happy watching a live rape show," she told the court in 2006. "And then they took me out of the van like a pig."