Gov’t hit over ‘secret talks’ with fishermen
MANILA, Philippines — Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, a lawyer for a group of fishermen who had asked for an environmental protection order from the Supreme Court, has accused the government of underhanded tactics for talking to his clients behind his back to get them to withdraw the case.
“It is not only suspicious that the government secretly talked to our clients, that also violates legal ethics,” said Diokno, a human rights lawyer who ran for senator in May.
“It seems Filipinos had another Recto-22,” he added, referring to the 22 fishermen from Occidental Mindoro who nearly drowned after a Chinese vessel sank their boat near Recto (Reed) Bank off Palawan province on June 9. After government officials met with them, the fishermen said they were no longer sure what happened.
Filed in the Supreme Court on April 16, the petition sought to compel the government to enforce the July 2016 UN arbitral court ruling against China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including parts of the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), whose resources are exclusively reserved for Filipinos by the Constitution.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) filed the petition for a writ of kalikasan, a special court order for environmental protection covering three Philippine reefs in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s EEZ.
The petition claims the marine environment in and around these reefs has been destroyed by China’s reclamation and poaching activities.
Diokno maintained on Wednesday that the fishermen petitioned for a writ of kalikasan “with full knowledge and consent, because all they want is to fish in our own seas and to earn enough to support their families.”
Met by Navy lawyer
He complained that after a Philippine Navy lawyer talked to the fishermen, they withdrew the petition and denied any hand in it.
“As one of the lawyers in this case, I am more concerned about the safety of our fishermen. The Duterte administration showed that nothing could get in its way. I hope they use that power to protect their fellow Filipinos,” he said.
The second round of oral arguments on the petition on Tuesday ended abruptly after Solicitor General Jose Calida announced that the petitioners—19 fishermen from Palawan and Zambales—were withdrawing from the writ of kalikasan case filed on their behalf by the IBP.
Asking the magistrates to dismiss the case outright, Calida presented the fishermen’s sworn statements and showed in court a taped interview of the group’s leaders, Monico Abogado and Roberto Asiado, who claimed they were “deceived” into signing the petition.
Calida quoted Abogado’s sworn statement in Filipino: “This is a big deception and manipulation of our association. We attest that we have no knowledge about this petition filed against agencies of the government. We don’t know anything about this and we don’t support the petition filed.”
Diokno told the magistrates that he was able to speak with three of the fishermen and insisted that they willingly agreed to act as petitioners.
Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin suspended Tuesday’s proceedings and called all the lawyers to a conference. About 15 minutes later, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen announced that the court unanimously decided to suspend the rest of the proceedings and give both parties time to file a joint motion.
Calida told reporters “both sides agreed that the writ of kalikasan petition [should] be dismissed,” adding that they would file the joint petition by Friday.
Diokno said the two parties only agreed “to explore the filing of a joint motion in the premises and were given until Friday to do so.”
In moving for its dismissal, Calida said the petition was meant to compel the government to confront China with the arbitral award, which the President shelved to pursue better relations and investments from China.
The arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s historical claims were baseless under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its EEZ.
“Since it is China which caused the environmental degradation, then the remedy falls within foreign relations,” Calida said, adding that the court had no jurisdiction over the crafting of foreign policy.
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