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Trial venue for military killing sparks outrage

A U.S. soldier has been charged in the slaying of a young woman in Panama, but will face military charges in America, not Panama.
Troops stand at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Feb. 18, 2014.
Troops stand at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Feb. 18, 2014.

An American soldier charged by the military with the murder of a 26-year-old woman in Panama will be tried in the United States, sparking protests by women’s groups and outraged family members.

Army Master Sergeant Omar Antonio Velez, 35, was charged by military authorities Monday with the "unpremeditated murder" of Vanessa Rodriguez and is currently being held in pre-trial confinement in North Carolina, according to Kim Hanson, an army spokeswoman. Velez was in Panama conducting trainings as part of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization.

Hanson confirmed to msnbc that Velez has been charged and is awaiting his Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a civilian preliminary hearing. However, he was not charged with a crime in Panama because he had been issued a diplomatic passport, giving him immunity from local prosecution. Hanson also said that the military's criminal investigation division is working on the case in conjunction with the Panamanian government.

The military "will fully investigate this incident and take appropriate action," Hanson told msnbc in an email. The Army also "expresses its deepest regret" over Rodriguez's death.

Velez allegedly shot and killed Rodriguez, with whom he reportedly had a relationship, before trying to hide her body.  He was arrested on June 23, and, according to the Associated Press, he was found with a shovel near the quarry where the woman’s body was discovered. 

A coalition of women’s rights groups in Panama has demanded that officials do something to bring Velez back for prosecution and asked that Rodriguez's family have a voice in whatever judicial proceedings take place around the case. 

On Friday, six women’s groups released a statement calling on Panamanian authorities to release information about Velez’s whereabouts and legal status, and requesting that the U.S. government conduct a thorough investigation and remove his diplomatic immunity. They also asked the United Nations to look into whether the U.S. and Panama are handling the case according to international women’s rights treaties.

"Immunity must not be impunity," the statement said.

It is not unheard of for members of the military or contractors to receive protection and assistance from the U.S. Embassy. The White House said in June that President Obama had received diplomatic assurances that the soldiers being sent to assist the Iraqi government in its fight against militants would not be tried in Iraqi courts for actions they take while deployed there.

In 2011, American officials helped free CIA contractor Raymond Davis from Pakistani law enforcement after he shot and killed two men in Lahore and ran over another. Officials argued at the time that Davis also had diplomatic immunity; he was released from a Pakistani prison after the families of the dead men were given $2.34 million in "restitution."