A US Marine convicted of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines in 2014 was pardoned Monday by President Rodrigo Duterte.
The pardon came five years after Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton admitted to choking Jennifer Laude in a hotel room after paying her for sex and finding out she was transgender.
Pemberton had served less than six years of a 10-year sentence for the killing.
The decision to release and pardon him was confirmed on Twitter by the foreign secretary of the Philippines, Teddy Locsin Jr.
But Duterte's decision drew swift criticism from LGBTQ organizations in the Philippines, who called the pardon of the convicted killer a direct attack against the country's trans community.
"President Duterte's pardon of Pemberton sends out a loud and clear message that a Filipino trans woman's life does not matter, that it is open season for discrimination and violence against transgender people, and that American soldiers will continue to get away with murder Philippine soil," read a statement signed by more than 30 organizations Monday. "His government never served our interests nor protected our rights and lives, and today proves that only a murderer can empathize with another murderer."
Chel Diokno, a human rights attorney and chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group, called the pardon, "a big step backward for justice in this case and our country."
Virginia Suarez, an attorney for Laude's family, also called the decision a "travesty of Philippine sovereignty and democracy."
Pemberton had testified that in October 2014 he was on a recreation day and went shopping and bar-hopping. At one bar, he met Laude and agreed to pay her for sex at a nearby hotel.
After Laude performed oral sex on Pemberton, he testified he found out she was transgender and pushed her off the bed. Laude allegedly slapped him, and Pemberton choked her until she lost consciousness. He said she was alive when he left the room.
One of his attorneys said during the trial Pemberton said he "felt that he was being raped," because he "was so repulsed and so disgusted because he did not give his consent to allow a man to do that to him."
In his conviction, the judge ruled that Pemberton's claim that he was under threat could not be used as a defense, stating, "There is no unlawful aggression that justifies [Pemberton] to defend his honor."
Pemberton had been slated for early release last week for good behavior, the BBC reported, but his release was halted after attorneys for Laude's family appealed.
The appeal is now null because of the presidential pardon.
It was not immediately clear when Pemberton would be freed from prison and allowed to return to the US.