MANILA, Philippines - The 11 Chinese fishermen caught poaching off Half Moon Shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands were criminally charged before the Puerto Princesa City prosecutor’s office last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has confirmed.
This developed as the Philippine National Police (PNP) maritime group in Palawan released back into the wild 177 sea turtles seized from the fishing vessel of the alleged poachers.
Prosecutor General Claro Arellano, chief of the DOJ’s prosecutorial arm, said yesterday that the complaint of the arresting officers of the PNP maritime group was docketed last Friday but the proceedings were postponed.
“The PNP brought the Chinese poachers last Friday for inquest. But they had no lawyer and interpreter,” Arellano said.
He said the Chinese fishermen did not want to be represented by the public attorneys being provided to them during the hearing.
“The prosecutor asked them to come back on Monday. But the case was docketed for inquest so it’s considered filed,” he said.
It was learned that investigating provincial prosecutor Allen Ross Rodriguez also required the PNP to present the evidence, including the fishermen’s vessel and the sea turtles seized from them.
Arellano confirmed that the PNP filed the complaint against the Chinese fishermen for violation of Republic Act 8550 (Fisheries Code), particularly Section 87 or poaching in Philippine waters and Section 97 or fishing or taking of rare, threatened or endangered species; and R.A. 9147 (Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act).
The charges are bailable, he said.
Rodriguez said that another case involving the fishermen’s illegal entry in the country may prompt the Bureau of Immigration to hold their departure.
He said the vessel will be subjected to inventory by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development.
The Chinese government earlier demanded the release of their fishermen.
But the Palace said it would proceed with the prosecution of the arrested poachers, insisting they had trespassed into the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Up to DFA
DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima, for her part, said she would leave the issue involving China’s demand to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
“At this point, it’s the DFA that should address the matter so as not to further fuel any tension with China. I know the DFA is working on it,” she said yesterday.
“We have our own UNCLOS (United Convention on the Law of the Sea). We have our own laws like R.A. 8550,” she said.
The alleged poachers, who had been taken to the provincial police office in Palawan for custody, were visited by the Chinese consul.
Sought for comment, the Chinese official refused to give any statement.
The 177 sea turtles released back into the wild by the PNP maritime group were part of the 555 endangered marine mammals that police maritime patrollers found in the vessel of the Chinese fishermen last week.
“As per inventory, out of the 555 sea turtles that were recovered, only 177 were found alive, while the rest were dead. Two hundred seven of them were slaughtered and stuffed,” the maritime group said in its report.
Seventy-five sea turtle shells were also found in the seized fishing vessel.
Meanwhile, an opposition lawmaker yesterday lambasted China for turning the poaching incident involving its nationals into a major diplomatic issue to bolster its claim over the West Philippine Sea.
“Whichever way China packages the issue, it cannot hide the fact that Chinese nationals were caught conducting illegal activities in Philippine waters,” Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon said.
Ridon said China is exploiting the poaching incident to advance its propaganda about its absurd nine-dash line claim.
“It is illogical to say that the arrest of the Chinese nationals is a ‘premeditated provocative action’ on the part of the Philippines. Philippine officials were only exercising their police power in our exclusive economic zone when they made the arrests,” he said.
He added that asking the Philippine government to release the poachers without prosecution is tantamount to saying that China is condoning their illegal activities.
“Chinese officials should stop making absurd statements and claims and focus on the facts of the incident,” the lawmaker said.
Ridon urged the Aquino administration to file a diplomatic protest regarding the latest incident of Chinese incursion in Philippine waters. – With Jaime Laude, Paolo Romero