Monday, April 06, 2009

There are issues bigger than Nicole's

To most Filipinos recently, Suzette Nicolas, aka “Nicole,” personifies what it means to recant one’s story.

In 2006, a Philippine trial court convicted Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, a U.S. marine, of raping Nicole. Why Nicole should change her claim that she was raped by the accused after three years have passed befuddles many.

Most rape victims don’t change their stories after the accused is convicted. The retraction does not have any legal weight in the appeal process where judges simply look at errors in law that were committed by the trial judge. But to the minds of many, including the judges hearing the appeal, Nicole’s retraction could be enough to suggest some reasonable doubt as to Smith’s culpability.

The retraction would also soften the impact of the possibility of a reversal of the lower court’s decision to convict Smith of a heinous crime since the victim has already recanted. By the time the decision is handed down by the Court of Appeals, the public would have already decided that Smith wasn’t guilty after all. It’s still going to be controversial without a doubt but it will no longer be that big enough to flame a thousand and one demonstrations and rallies on the streets in order to denounce Smith’s acquittal or for the militant organizations demanding the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to continue Nicole’s case as a rallying cry. The fire has been doused.

In Nicole’s case it is very obvious why she has changed her tune. First, in the civil case against Smith, Nicole’s retraction was necessary to mitigate the damages, but not to render Smith’s liability so pitilessly insignificant. How much is 100 thousand Philippine pesos as compensation for the agony and pain Nicole suffered? Now, her detractors can add her humiliation for playing Judas.

Second, although this is merely speculative, Nicole’s retraction is the price for a visa for her, and her entire family perhaps, to travel to the United States where she can start life anew and realize their family’s dream of moving to the U.S. someday. Approval of the U.S. visa could also be seen as part of the deal to settle the civil liability case against Smith. This part of the settlement seems beneficial to both the United States and the Philippine government which needed something to distract the militant protest against the VFA.

However one analyzes Nicole’s retraction, the invisible hand of the United States, with the complicity of the Philippine government, is omnipresent from the preparation of Nicole’s affidavit which included her retraction to the circumstances surrounding the settlement of the civil suit against Smith and the abrupt departure of Nicole to, where else, but the United States. The incumbent Arroyo government would prefer by all means that the rape case wither away because it was adding flames to the VFA protest and therefore endangering the continuous flow of military aid from the United States which the Philippine military needs to avert the growing strength of the Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao.

But no matter how loud Filipinos cry uncle and blame the United States’ meddling in this matter, the bigger stake lies in the status of the VFA which many quarters in the Philippines would like to scrap for being practically another military bases agreement, Nicole’s retraction left a bad taste in our mouths. To the militant anti-VFA groups, using Nicole’s case as battlecry to drive the American forces out of the country is so out of proportion to the appalling deaths of civilians and exodus of refugees in Mindanao as a result of the military operations conducted by the “visiting” American soldiers and their counterpart Philippine army against suspected Muslim rebels in the region. The fatalities and havoc caused by the American visiting forces in Mindanao, which represent an assault on Philippine sovereignty, should be the real trigger to launch a massive outcry against the United States. One rape incident is not going to accomplish this purpose.

Nicole and her family were never against the American visiting contingent in the first place. An American soldier raping Nicole would never change the family’s convictions. Nicole grew up interacting with American servicemen patronizing the canteen the family operated inside the Southern Command. Her former boyfriend was an American serviceman. Nicole’s previous liaisons with American servicemen had already cheapened her personal image to the eyes of many, and a rape incident that turned into consensual sex, as her retraction would appear to suggest, is nothing but almost foreseeable, especially if it could be their meal ticket to the United States.

Of course, only Nicole can explain why she recanted. But what would motivate a victim of a sexual offence or any crime, for that matter, to recant?

If Nicole made the retraction before Smith’s conviction by the lower court, it would almost be excusable although it does not serve the ends of justice. Many victims of sexual crimes either become uncooperative or recant their stories, thus prosecuting these cases is very hard and difficult.

There are numerous reasons why a victim of a sexual crime can become uncooperative or recant. These include fear of the accused, financial need, trying to keep the family together, and embarrassment or the stigma of shame. Police officers responding to a scene of sexual crime would normally approach the possibility of charges with the belief that the victim will be uncooperative or will recant later.

Nicole in her affidavit stated: “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. I would rather risk public outrage than do nothing to help the court in ensuring that justice is served.”

Believing Nicole’s affidavit to be true, she was cleansing her conscience when she recanted her earlier story, to help the court ensure that justice is served. But nobody is buying into that.

The militant organizations which supported Nicole’s case from the beginning of the trial up until now should have foreseen the possibility that Nicole might recant. Our experience with the military bases agreement between the Philippines and the U.S. is replete with cases of Filipino women who had suffered sexual crimes and other indignities in the hands of American soldiers, but who were never prosecuted and brought to justice in Philippine courts because they were granted immunity under the agreement.

That the same travesty of justice would happen under the VFA is therefore not unforeseeable, especially if we have a government that is more than willing to forego of its sovereignty to kowtow with the U.S. government every time.

A Philippine news editorial suggests that “Nicole has irreparably damaged the Filipina globally.” With already a beleaguered Filipina image across the world, Nicole as the editorial would suggest, made the “global perception of the Filipina as a domestic helper, to the Filipina as a cheap one-night stand.”

That is stretching the argument too far. If one incident of rape could not persuade the government-of-the-day to scrap an onerous and subservient piece of agreement such as the VFA, how much more could it embody or redefine the image of the Filipino woman as a cheap slut? Over the years, the persona of a Filipino woman has undergone so many positive changes that she could now stand on stage with other women of other nationalities knowing she’s equal with them, and just as capable. We have many success stories of Filipino women in America and in the Philippines who have accomplished feats hitherto men can only achieve.

Nicole could be a stain that will go away someday, but she would not be an indelible character that would sully the Filipina image permanently.

Nicole has been through hell and back. She regained her dignity, perhaps not so much due justice, when Smith was convicted of raping her. That dignity was immediately lost when she recanted her story. No one will ever know what really happened; whether Nicole was raped or if she had consensual sex or whether she had been pressured to recant.

Everyone seems so engrossed with the sensational aspects of her story that we have forgotten that the one person who will bear this burden would be Nicole, a woman twice betrayed by her own government and by a superpower that touts to be the “friend of the world’s peoples.” For now, let Nicole move on. We have other bigger issues to fight.

No comments: