Beyond stoking the love-hate relationship between the Philippines and the US, the ongoing trial of four US servicemen accused of raping a 22-year-old Filipino woman actually tests Philippines' nine-year-old law on rape. Passed in September 1997, the anti-rape law is considered a landmark legislation since it amended the definition of rape from a crime against chastity to a crime against persons.
Former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, 76, principal author of the Anti-Rape Law -1997, says, "I want to know how much our lawyers believe in the anti-rape law."
The complainant, referred to by the media as Nicole (not her real name), is backed by a 10-member prosecution team comprising government and private counsels. The predominantly female prosecution team accuses Lance Corporals Daniel Smith, Dominic Duplantis, Keith Silkwood and Staff Sergeant Chad Brian Carpentier of raping Nicole inside a Starex van in Subic, site of the former US Base, in northern Philippines on November 1, 2005. The all-male defence team, composed of lawyers from some of the country's top law firms, argues that only Smith had sex with Nicole and that it was consensual.
The rape law is supported by the Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act of 1998, another critical law in the trial. The most significant provision in this law is the 'rape shield' clause, which mandates that the complainant's past sexual conduct or reputation are not admissible as evidence in trial, unless the court decides that these data are relevant to the case. But the defence has expectedly - and repeatedly - painted Nicole as a 'liberal' woman who "had wanted sex" and "even more sex".
When Nicole first took the witness stand on July 6, 2006, the defence attacked her even before the examination began. "Please put on record that Nicole was not crying at all when she identified my client," Smith's counsel Benjamin Formoso said, after the complainant positively identified the 21-year-old US marine as the one who had pulled her onto the dance floor.
Dr June Pagaduan Lopez, Nicole's psychiatrist, says every trial day is traumatic for Nicole. Her turbulent emotions were clearly manifest when she testified for the first time. She broke into tears three times, causing the court to go on recess. She also cried during the most critical parts of her testimony, including remembering how her family treated American soldiers well in their restaurant, and when she recounted how she felt Smith on top of her when she regained consciousness.
"It was like being raped all over again," Lopez says, adding that the most difficult part for Nicole was learning what really happened to her from testimonies of witnesses.
While each trial is emotionally exhausting for Nicole, Lopez observes that she is slowly taking control of herself now. She and her family are also very aware of how critical this case is for the country, and that there is no turning back for them. This is so far the only case involving sexual crimes by US military soldiers that has reached trial.
Women's groups like Gabriela have documented over 100 cases of sexual offences allegedly committed by US servicemen against Filipino women and children, before the US military bases were shut down in 1991. (For 94 years, Philippines was the US' largest military naval base outside the US.) No US serviceman was ever charged, even if 15 of these cases involved child victims.
The only case that cause a huge public outcry was that of Rosario Baluyot, a 12-year-old girl who was allegedly raped by a US serviceman, who was swiftly pulled out of the country before investigation could even be conducted.
Nicole's struggle for justice, therefore, poses the most serious strain on Filipino-US diplomatic relations after the pullout of the US military bases in 1991. The 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) replaced the Bases Treaty, allowing the US to use Philippines territory for 'friendly' military exercises.
Early this year, women and anti-US activists protested against the US Embassy's refusal to transfer custody of the accused to Filipino law enforcers and the Philippines government's weakness to assert its custody rights.
Multisectoral support for Nicole was clear during her July 6 testimony. Apart from Shahani and other women's advocates, Representative Liza Maza and Davao City councillor Joji Ilagan were also present. Women lawyers, anti-crime crusaders, anti-US bases activists, church workers, female college students and professors also showed up during the trial.
A multisectoral group, Task Force Subic Rape, was formed to support Nicole during court hearings and to shield her identity until the trial ends. The group members gather around and cover Nicole when she goes in and out of the courtroom.
"Our lives really changed after what happened," Nicole's elder brother Ryan, 23, says. "We used to go out freely. Now, we have to be more careful with our actions." Ryan, a sales representative with a food manufacturing company in Manila, says his sister tries very hard to be strong and deal with facing her rapists in court and with public perception outside the courtroom.
Meanwhile, Nicole's private counsel Evalyn Ursua urges both government and civil society to look at lessons from Japan, which has convicted several US servicemen for sexual crimes. US serviceman Staff Sergeant Timothy Woodland was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment in March 2002 for raping a 24-year-old Japanese woman in Okinawa. Like in Nicole's case, he claimed it was consensual.
"It's all a matter of political will," says Ursua.