Manila: Political activists and gender equality groups have called on the Philippine government to take into custody an American serviceman accused of killing a transgender person at a lodge on Saturday.

An autopsy report said that Jeffrey Laude, 26, died of asphyxiation by drowning.

The incident in northern Luzon comes at the tail-end of joint war games between the Philippines and the United States militaries.

“The Philippine government must take custody of the suspected American serviceman. He should remain in the Philippines for his trial in a local court — to ensure justice for his Filipino victim,” Professor Roland Simbulan said in an interview on Monday.

“The victim, Jeffrey Laude, must be given justice. The case must not be swept under the rug, especially because the victim is a transgender,” said Dindi Tan of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines (ATP).

Women’s groups have vowed to hold protest rallies over the matter.

Confirming the alleged involvement of a US serviceman in the murder case, Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said in a press conference: “The Criminal Investigation and Detection Group [CIDG] of the Philippine National Police [PNP] identified a US serviceman for the murder of transgender Jeffrey Laude who was found dead inside the Celzone Lodge in East Tapinac village, Olongapo City, Zambales late Saturday night.”

The American soldier escorted Laude from a disco bar in Olongapo City on Saturday evening. They then proceeded to the lodge, where Laude was eventually found dead, said Tutaan. He did not release the name of the US serviceman.

Another source said the suspected killer was attached to Camp Lejeune of the US Marines in North Carolina. He and other members of the 9th US Marines’ Light Infantry 2nd Battalion were deployed to the Philippines for the Amphibious Landing Exercises (PHIBLEX) being staged by the US and Philippine military forces in Zambales from September 29 to October 10.

The Visiting Forces Agreement Commission will continue investigating the case, Tutaan said.

Confirming Tutaan’s report, the US embassy in Manila said in a statement, “A US Marine has been identified as a possible suspect in the ongoing investigation.”

“The United States will continue to fully cooperate with Philippine law enforcement authorities in every aspect of the investigation,” the embassy statement said, adding, “The United States Embassy in Manila expresses its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jeffrey Laude.”

A report from Marine Corps Times said the suspected killer, including three other companions who could be witnesses, were already detained aboard the USS Peleliu.

The US ship docked in Subic Bay also on Saturday, for the US-Philippine war games, Olongapo City mayor Rolen Paulino said, adding that the ship’s port call would end on Tuesday.

A team from the US federal law enforcement agency Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) worked with Philippine investigators during the initial investigation of the murder case and the victim’s autopsy.

The NCIS is in charge of investigating criminal offences involving the US Navy and Marine Corps.

Activists are wary because of the precedent of a rape case involving a US soldier in 2006.

At the time, a lower court in Metro Manila’s Makati City found US soldier Daniel Smith guilty of raping a Filipina in Subic in 2005.

He was initially detained in a jail in Makati City, but was later placed under US custody and detained at the US embassy in Manila.

In April 2009, the Court of Appeals acquitted Smith of rape, following a retraction from the rape victim who was identified as Nicole throughout the trial.

She was pressured to retract her statement to save face for the action of the US Embassy and at the same time help mend US-Philippine relations, outraged observers claim.