updated 4/28/2006 2:59:32 AM ET 2006-04-28T06:59:32

A Philippine judge threw out a motion Friday to reduce charges against three of four Marines charged in the rape of a Filipino woman last year, keeping all of them as principal defendants in the case.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales filed the motion last week, saying he found no conspiracy surrounding the alleged Nov. 1 rape of the 22-year-old woman. Gonzales had argued only one Marine — Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith — should face rape charges, while the other three should be charged as accessories.

If convicted of rape, the Marines could face the death penalty. The other three Marines — Lance Cpl. Keith Silkwood, Lance Cpl. Dominic Duplantis and Staff Sgt. Chad Carpentier — would have faced up to 20 years in prison under the reduced charges.

Judge Benjamin Pozon, of the Regional Trial Court in suburban Makati city, said he could not allow the downgrading of the charges because he had not yet seen the evidence against the four men.

His ruling came hours before a scheduled arraignment of the four Marines, who are in the custody of the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines.

The four were charged with rape last year while on liberty following counterterrorism maneuvers with Filipino troops.

Prosecutors allege that Smith raped the woman inside a van at Subic Bay, a former U.S. Naval base northwest of Manila, as fellow Marines cheered him on. Smith claims he only had consensual sex.

The case has stirred anger in the former American colony and a backlash against U.S. military exercises credited with helping weaken al-Qaida-linked militants in the Philippines’ restive south.

About two dozen members of a women’s group protested outside the courthouse Friday with signs saying “Jail the Yankees and “Rage against Rape.”

In January, the United States refused a Philippine request to hand over the Marines, citing a provision in the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows U.S. authorities to hold American servicemen facing a criminal charges in the country.

The decision provoked anti-American protests in Philippine capital of Manila and the Muslim south, where U.S. troops were conducting annual counterterrorism training of Filipino soldiers.

The defendants belong to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The U.S. Embassy has not released their names or hometowns.

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