PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Let them go. Forgive and forget. This was the gist of what two ranking officials of the Chinese Embassy in Manila on Thursday were asking in trying to secure the immediate release of 12 Chinese fishermen accused of poaching in the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea.
But they were snubbed by marine park and defense officials.
Instead of listening to Consul General Shen Zicheng and Third Secretary Li Jian, officials of the Tubbataha Management Office proceeded to file bribery charges against the 12 Chinese fishermen, who were arraigned in a court here on Wednesday on charges of poaching.
Shen and Li arrived here on Tuesday and sought a meeting with marine park supervisor Angelique Songco, but were “quietly turned down,” according to a member of the Tubbataha Management Board.
The two Chinese diplomats refused to talk to reporters and returned to Manila on Thursday, said the board member, who requested anonymity for not having authorization to discuss the matter with journalists.
An official at the military’s Western Command (Wescom) here said the two Chinese officials tried to convince local defense authorities in a meeting on Wednesday to pardon the fishermen because their presence in Tubbataha, a protected marine sanctuary, was “unintentional.”
“They tried to convince us that this was all an accident and they did not intend to be there,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
The fishermen have been in detention here since their arrest by park rangers who found their vessel, the 48-meter Ming Long Yu, jammed onto the northern atoll of the world-famous marine sanctuary, 1,600 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass.
“We will seek to quickly prosecute and resolve this case,” Alen Ross Rodriguez, chief prosecutor of Palawan province, which has jurisdiction over Tubbataha, said.
“No one can just enter our waters and willfully destroy our marine life,” Rodriguez said.
Like the marine park officials, the security officials refused to listen to Shen and Li, the Wescom official said.
Lawyer Adel Villena of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, who assisted the marine park authorities in bringing the bribery charges, said the second case involved the Chinese fishermen’s offering park rangers $2,400 to let them go after their boat ran aground on the northern atoll of Tubbataha Reefs, a UN World Heritage-listed site, on Monday night.
“The second case was for violation of Article No. 212 of the Revised Penal Code concerning bribery of public officials,” Villena said.
“Possibly we are also going to file an additional case for judicial determination of fines,” he added.
The Chinese fishermen—Che Li Yong, Fon Lenl Yie, Zuan Ven Fe, Wang Yu Zhen, Lizhong Shen, Lizhi Ming, Liu Cheng Tie, Liu Wen Jie, Tung Zhue We, Tang Hai Ling, Wen Hong Min and Qi Vixn—face up to 12 years in jail in the Philippines on conviction.
No Beijing role
Despite the Chinese Embassy’s intervention, Malacañang on Thursday dismissed insinuations that Beijing was behind the unauthorized entry of the Ming Long Yu into Tubbataha.
“At this point, we’re treating it the way it looks, it’s a Chinese fishing vessel, not government-owned, and that it ran aground by accident,” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters in the Palace.
“At this point, we have no reason to believe otherwise,” he added.
The filing of charges against the Chinese fishermen followed President Aquino’s promise of swift legal action to quickly resolve the violations of Philippine environmental and maritime security laws.
US Navy case
The Ming Long Yu is the second foreign vessel to run aground on Tubbataha Reefs this year.
On Jan. 17, the US Navy’s minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground on the south atoll of Tubbataha, damaging over 2,000 square meters of coral reef in the sanctuary.
The Guardian had to be dismmantled piece by piece to prevent further damage to the reef, in a salvage operation that took 10 weeks.
The damage would cost the US Navy $1.4 million in fines, which environmentalists and some lawmakers find too small. They want the government to press the investigation to determine further US liability for the damage to the reef.
Responding to criticism of the government’s speedy legal action against the Chinese fishermen and its kid glove handling of the US Navy in the Guardian incident, Carandang said: “Those are two separate incidents. They are not apples to apples. One is a military ship of an allied country that was here with our permission, involved in our mutual defense. The other is a private fishing vessel, which was here without permission [and] for commercial reasons. So clearly, the different natures of these [incidents] necessitate different responses.”
The US Navy has relieved the four top officers of the Guardian while an investigation of the grounding is going on.
“We have an investigation that is proceeding with the Americans, and there are certain laws and practices that we have to abide by,” Carandang said.
He said the goals of the US internal investigation were to find out what really happened and to seek “some sort of reparations for the damages that admittedly were incurred.”
“Nobody believes that this was done on purpose so our idea is, if something happens again, there are certain processes in place that would ensure or that would provide for resolution or reparation,” Carandang said.—With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and AFP