MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine court overturned the rape conviction of a U.S. Marine whose case became a rallying point for activists demanding American forces leave the country. Protesters said the decision underscored their government's subservience to an old colonial master.
Three years ago, Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for raping a Filipino woman after a night of drinking. The emotional case soon turned into a political tug-of-war between the government _ keen on maintaining smooth relations with its key ally _ and nationalist, left-wing and women's rights activists eager to showcase that the Philippines can do without U.S. protection.
Just hours after the Philippine Appeals Court overturned Smith's 2006 conviction, more than two dozen activists marched to the U.S. Embassy in Manila but were stopped by riot police. They peacefully dispersed after the hourlong protest.
"We are outraged," said Renato Reyes of the prominent left-wing group Bayan.
The woman accused Smith of raping her in a van in the presence of other Marines, after the two met in a bar at the former U.S. Subic Bay Naval base in 2005, while Smith was on leave after taking part in military exercises.
The Philippine Senate in 1991 voted to close down two main U.S. bases in the Philippines _ Subic and Clark Air Base. Eight years later, Manila and Washington signed the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows U.S. forces to conduct war exercises in the Philippines, an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and provide counterterrorism training for Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaida-linked militants in the volatile south.
During a dramatic yearlong trial at a suburban metropolitan Manila court, the woman broke down and said she was too drunk to stop Smith's assault. At one point, she attacked him with fists while walking to the stand.
Smith, 23, of St. Louis, Missouri, insisted the sex was consensual, telling the court: "I think it's horrible what I've been accused of. This place has taken a year off of my life that I can never get back."
After Smith was convicted, he was initially taken to a Philippine jail, but the U.S. argued he should be kept in American custody, citing the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Washington said the accord entitles any accused U.S. service member to remain in American hands until all judicial proceedings are exhausted.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo backed the U.S. position, but the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in February he should serve his sentence in a Philippine prison and asked the government to negotiate his transfer with Washington. The negotiations were under way when the appeals court ruled Thursday.
"No evidence was introduced to show force, threat and intimidation applied by the accused," the appeals court said in its 71-page decision, which is final.
It ordered the immediate release of Smith from his detention at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Smith's lawyer, Jose Justiniano, said his client "got the justice that he deserved."
But leftist groups condemned the decision saying it was proof of Arroyo's subservience to the United States.
"This denial of justice can only be blamed on Mrs. Arroyo, whose subservience to the U.S. and veneration of the VFA knows no bounds," Reyes said, referring to the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Activists protesting at the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy late Thursday held up posters that read, "Smith's acquittal, a Philippine-U.S. government connivance."
The case also sparked protests condemning a Philippine government decision to allow Smith to be detained at the U.S. Embassy instead of a local jail.
Another twist came in March when the woman suddenly reversed her testimony and emigrated to the United States, saying in a court affidavit she was no longer certain a crime took place.
The woman initially said she and Smith were drinking, kissing and dancing at a bar before moving to a van, where she originally told the court she was raped while she fell in and out of consciousness.
The woman's turnabout shocked her supporters. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said she could be charged with perjury.
The court said Thursday its decision was not influenced by her reversal, and described the encounter between Smith and the woman as "the unfolding of a spontaneous, unplanned romantic episode with both parties carried away by their passions."
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Oliver Teves contributed to this report.