10:11 pm | Wednesday, April 10th, 2013
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines—The 12 Chinese nationals whose boat got stuck in the Tubbataha Reefs on Monday night were slapped with charges of poaching and other violations of the marine park’s rules.
They were detained at the provincial jail facility here following inquest proceedings on Tuesday afternoon.
The Chinese, all crew members of what was reported as a 48-by-8-meter fishing vessel that rammed into Tubbataha’s north islet, were also expected to face additional charges, including attempted bribery.
Marine park rangers at the World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea said the Chinese offered them a bribe of $2,400 immediately after the boat ran aground.
“We went ahead with the filing of the poaching case first and other violations under the law that created the Tubbataha marine park,” lawyer Adelle Villena of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development told the INQUIRER.
She said other cases, including that one involving bribery, would follow.
In Roxas City, President Benigno Aquino III said he was taken aback that yet another foreign vessel ran aground in the natural park, but this time he vowed to throw the book at the Chinese crew.
“Wow! We’ve just finished (extracting the USS) Guardian, and here comes another one,” the President recalled what he told Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya when the letter reported to him the latest incident on Tuesday.
Mr. Aquino said swift legal action would be taken against crewmen of the steel-hulled vessel Ming Long Yu.
“So the bottom line is we have a law. It’s Republic Act (No.) 10067 that states, perhaps, everything that needs to be known (about prohibited acts in the marine park),” he said yesterday in an ambush interview at the Roxas City airport.
The President noted that RA 10067 stated that anyone entering the protected zone without clearance from the Tubbataha Management Office was considered a poacher.
He said that poaching had corresponding penalties—either imprisonment or fines—and stressed that “our job as the executive department is to execute this law.”
But an environment group accused the Aquino administration of double standard in handling the back-to-back intrusions of a US Navy warship, the USS Guardian in January, and the Chinese fishing vessel.
“While the Philippine Coast Guard swiftly acted to apprehend the Chinese intruders, it is shameful and appalling how the Aquino government handled the American trespassers from the US Navy,” said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.
He noted the disparity in the government’s response toward the grounding of the Chinese and American vessels in the Tubbataha Reefs National Park.
“First, the PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) failed to apprehend the officers and crew of the USS Guardian in spite of their clear violations of our local and environmental laws. Second, the Philippine authorities embarrassingly failed to assert our right to directly investigate and interview the personnel of the USS Guardian as the US Navy did not allow it,” Bautista said in a statement.
“Worse, the Aquino administration is handling the USS Guardian grounding just like a matter of monetary compensation on the damaged reefs,” he said. Until now the government has not prosecuted the US Navy personnel responsible for the grounding.
Asked if the Philippine government would press the Chinese government to take responsibility for the incident, Mr. Aquino said owners of the Chinese vessel would not be spared.
“I think, the law says that those caught (poaching) will be made accountable. It’s a fishing vessel. So it will be the owners of the fishing vessel, among others, who will be charged,” he said.
Another nongovernment organization called on the government to act decisively in prosecuting the 12 Chinese, noting that the government in the past yielded to diplomatic pressures in almost all cases involving Chinese poachers caught in various parts of Palawan.
“We have not been consistent in applying the full force of the law against Chinese poachers. If you look at what happened with all of the cases involving Chinese nationals, it is easy to conclude that we have been treating them with kid gloves,” the Environmental Legal Assistance Center said in a statement.
The Chinese crew members were fetched from Tubbataha by the Coast Guard patrol vessel BRP Romblon right after the incident and were first brought to the Camp Artemio Ricarte medical facility for check up.
Chinese Consul General Shen Zicheng and 3rd Secretary Li Jian flew to Palawan Tuesday and held a closed-door meeting with Western Command officials while the detainees were undergoing medical check up.
“They are all generally fit and healthy. A couple had some minor head abrasions but overall there is no need for any further medical attention,” Capt. Alekhine Tinio, a Western Command surgeon, told reporters at the camp.
In Mambusao, Capiz, administration senatorial candidate Jamby Madrigal said the Chinese crew should be thrown in jail and their fishing boat seized.
“If Filipinos went to Chinese waters and went fishing there, they wouldn’t just be arrested, they would be shot at because we’re speaking of territorial waters. We’re still rather kind,” Madrigal told reporters as the Team PNoy senatorial ticket campaigned in the province.
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, also a senatorial candidate on the administration ticket, said the Chinese fishers should be given the penalties proportionate to the damage caused by their intrusion.
For her part, Sen. Loren Legarda, a re-electionist on the administration ticket, said the owner and crew of the Chinese fishing vessel should be put to task for encroaching on Philippine waters and damaging the Unesco World Heritage Site.
The President disclosed plans to add more lighted buoys in the area, and to expand the so-called buffer zone to protect Tubbatah from intruders.
“It’s like coming up with bigger signs (that will say), ‘Don’t transit near this area’ to forestall any possibility that there will be another grounding incident,” he said.
Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, the Coast Guard spokesperson, said the 48-meter boat remained stuck on the same spot where it ran aground on Monday night.
The vessel, with the marking 63168, is “being closely guarded by PCG and Navy personnel as well as by Tubbataha Marine Park rangers,” he said.
The Chinese boat ran aground at 11:40 p.m. on Monday about 1.1 nautical miles east of the marine park’s ranger station.
The Tubbataha Reef Management Office has yet to determine the damage caused by the vessel to the coral reefs.
The USS Guardian, which got stock on another Tubbataha atoll on Jan. 17, was removed on March 30 after being dismantled piece by piece by a crane. On April 5, marine scientists reported that the warship damaged 2,345 square meters of corals, and computed the fine to be imposed on the US government at $1.4 million.
Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena, the PCG commandant, said the Coast Guard would help re-float the stranded vessel, said to be based in Fujian, China.
The Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel BRP Corregidor, docked at the pier behind the PCG headquarters in Manila, will leave shortly for the Tubbataha Reefs to assist in the removal of the Chinese vessel. With reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Jerry Esplanada, DJ Yap and Norman Bordadora