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Philippine judge quits rape trial of US Marines

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, Mar 23 (Reuters) The trial of four US Marines charged with raping a woman in the Philippines last year was postponed today after the judge said he was voluntarily withdrawing from the case.

The trial, due to start tomorrow with the arraignment of the accused, will be delayed until a new judge is picked.

The four sailors, being held in the custody of the US embassy in Manila, deny the charges filed in December, saying only one of them had sex with the 22-year-old woman and that it was consensual.

A person convicted of rape in the Philippines can be sentenced to death.

Judge Renato Dilag of the regional trial court in Olongapo City, northwest of Manila, said he decided to withdraw from the trial after the lawyer for the alleged victim filed a petition asking him to step aside.

''This was triggered by my denial of the motion to defer arraignment,'' he told reporters.

''Right now it's getting hot,'' he said, hinting at political and diplomatic pressure over the case. ''I used to joke ... that the only pressure I was getting was from the media. Apart from that, I did not feel any pressure coming from anybody.'' Despite small protests, the rape case has not inflamed any broad anti-American sentiment in the Philippines, a former US colony and Washington's closest security ally in Southeast Asia.

But some politicians and women's groups have called for a Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries to be amended or scrapped, saying it favours the United States and gives too much protection to US troops accused of committing crimes.

The four members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, had just ended two weeks of military exercises with Philippine troops in October and were on brief shore leave when the alleged rape happened.

ALLEGATIONS AGAINST JUDGE The woman's lawyer, Evalyn Ursua, said she found ''disturbing'' information that may have affected the judge's integrity.

Ursua did not give details, but Dilag is facing an inquiry in the Supreme Court after some workers at the court filed a complaint against him.

''It's a very serious allegation,'' Ursua told Reuters. ''He should have inhibited himself a long time ago. He should have disclosed it much earlier.'' Ursua said her team also learned that Dilag's son, Raymond, had worked with a law firm handling the defence of one of the four Marines. The judge said his son had left the firm in 2004.

The mother of the alleged victim today called on the government to back her daughter's case as the justice department considers amending the charges against three of the Marines.

''What I'm studying now is whether the culpability of all these people is the same,'' Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez told Reuters on Monday.

Washington turned down a request by Manila to hand over the sailors, ignoring arrest warrants issued by Dilag in January.

In a January. 16 diplomatic note, the embassy invoked the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, saying ''the US government shall continue to exercise custody until completion of all judicial proceedings''.

REUTERS DKS PM1729

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