Philippine prosecutors yesterday chargef nine Chinese fishermen arrested in disputed South China Sea waters with environmental crimes, despite Beijing’s warning of a dire effect on relations.
The decision, announced by prosecutors in Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island, is set to further stoke the simmering territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Philippine prosecutor Allan Ross Rodriguez said he filed charges in court, rejecting the appeals of two Chinese diplomats who met him earlier in the day about the case.
“It is clear: there was a fishing vessel, Chinese fishermen, a catch of [protected] sea turtles. It is clear from what the apprehending officers said,” Rodriguez said, explaining the basis for his decision.
Philippine police seized the Chinese-flagged vessel and detained its 11 crew last week off disputed Half Moon Shoal.
However, two were found to be minors and would be repatriated without charges, Rodriguez said.
The remaining nine would be charged with violating laws against poaching and catching protected species.
If found guilty of collecting “rare, threatened or endangered” species, the most serious allegation, they could face up to 20 years in prison and large fines.
Poaching in Philippine waters itself is punishable by fines of up to US$200,000.
Philippine police said they found a huge haul of hundreds of sea turtles — a protected species — on board the 15 tonne vessel, many of them already dead.
China has demanded that the Philippines free the fishermen immediately, saying it has “undisputable sovereignty” over the shoal.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China’s embassy in Manila have also urged the Philippines to “stop taking further provocative action” that would harm relations.
Rodriguez said the Philippine government has assigned lawyers to represent the crewmen after the Chinese diplomats declined to hire defense lawyers.
China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea has strained its ties with Southeast Asian countries.
China’s extensive claims also overlap those of Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia.