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China blamed as fishing case postponed in Philippines
by Staff Writers
Puerto Princesa, Philippines (AFP) June 18, 2014

12 Vietnamese jailed in Philippines for illegal fishing
Puerto Princesa, Philippines (AFP) June 18, 2014 - A Philippine court on Wednesday sentenced 12 Vietnamese men to six months in jail and fined them $100,000 for illegal fishing, the prosecutor in the case said.

The fishermen, who were arrested on March 21 with a boatload of sharks just off the western island of Palawan, pleaded guilty last week, prosecutor Alen Rodriguez told AFP.

If the 12 cannot pay the fine, the equivalent of more than $8,000 each and a huge sum for such fishermen, the judge could add more time to their sentence, said Rodriguez.

But in similar cases in the past, foreign fishermen caught in Philippine waters were allowed to go free after serving their sentences without paying the fine, he said.

"We will see if they can pay. If they cannot, then let us see what is done by the court," he said.

The Vietnamese embassy in Manila could not be contacted for comment.

Taking into account the three months that the 12 have already been in jail, they may be released in September, said clerk of court Hazel Mae Alaska.

Vietnamese fishermen have been caught repeatedly fishing in Philippine waters in recent years, mostly near Palawan, which is the closest major Filipino island to Vietnam.

The near-2,000-kilometre (1,250-mile) coast of Palawan is home to some of the region's richest fishing grounds.

The Philippines has few maritime resources to police the area, so fishermen from neighbouring countries regularly sail in.

Another group of 12 Vietnamese, arrested in 2013 collecting sea turtles near Palawan, are still in jail in the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa while their case for allegedly violating wildlife laws drags on.

If convicted, they face 12 years in jail, said Alex Marcaida, spokesman of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, an environmental law enforcement office.

In 2011, 122 Vietnamese were arrested near Palawan in the biggest illegal fishing bust in recent memory. They served jail terms of about six months, then were sent home.

The arrests of the Vietnamese fishermen have generally occurred in waters very close to Palawan, and not in areas of the adjoining South China Sea that are subject to competing territorial claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other neighbouring countries.

A court case against a group of Chinese fishermen facing jail in the Philippines for poaching was postponed for a third time on Wednesday, after the government accused China of frustrating the proceedings.

The fate of the nine fishermen has worsened an already bitter row between the Philippines and China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, because they were arrested last month in disputed waters.

A court on the westernmost Philippine island of Palawan that is meant to hear the case on Wednesday postponed the pre-trial hearing until July 1 after their lawyer appealed for more time, prosecutor Alen Rodriguez told AFP.

The pre-trial hearing was initially scheduled for June 4, but has now been postponed three times.

The proceedings had previously been postponed due to the court's inability to find an interpreter for the Chinese.

President Benigno Aquino's spokesman said on Tuesday the Chinese embassy in Manila was partly to blame for the delays by not assisting in providing an interpreter.

"Chinese embassy officials don't want to participate in the proceedings. They don't want to provide an interpreter for the Chinese fishermen," spokesman Herminio Coloma said, citing comments from Rodriguez.

Local ethnic Chinese residents have in the past acted in similar cases. One of those residents initially translated for the fishermen at their arraignment hearing last month, but then withdrew his services.

Some of the ethnic Chinese residents told AFP that, after meeting a Chinese diplomat, they decided not to work on the case because they felt intimidated and did not want to antagonise the Chinese government.

However a young ethnic Chinese resident was finally persuaded to act as an interpreter, according to Rodriquez, and helped the fishermen at Wednesday's proceedings.

A Chinese embassy spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The Chinese government has previously said it does not recognise the case and demanded the fishermen be released immediately, insisting they were fishing legally in waters belonging to China.

Police detained the fishermen on May 6 near Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea, 111 kilometres (69 miles) off Palawan.

They were charged with poaching an endangered species, which carries a maximum jail term of 20 years, after hundreds of turtles were allegedly found on their boat.

The Philippines insists it has sovereign rights to the shoal, which is part of its exclusive economic zone and more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest major Chinese landmass.

But China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbours.

The dispute has severely strained relations in recent years, with the Philippines accusing China of embarking on an "expansionist agenda" that has included creating artificial islands in areas close to the Philippines.



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