The pre-trial hearing of a case against a group of nine Chinese fishermen arrested last month for poaching in disputed waters was postponed for a third time on Wednesday.
In a move that the Philippine government has described as China’s way of frustrating the proceedings, the legal counsel of the fishermen appealed to the court for more time.
The court, on the westernmost Philippine island of Palawan, agreed to postpone the pre-trial hearing until July 1, prosecutor Alen Rodriguez told the Associated Foreign Press (AFP).
This marks the third postponement of the pre-trial hearing, which was originally scheduled for June 4.
The previous postponements were due to the court’s failure to find an interpreter for the Chinese.
However, Herminio Coloma, President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman, said on Tuesday that the Chinese embassy in Manila was partly to blame for the delays in the proceedings by not lending assistance 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,” Coloma said.
Initially, a Local ethnic Chinese resident acted as translator for the fishermen at their arraignment hearing last month, but eventually withdrew his services.
Some ethnic Chinese residents told reporters from the AFP that they decided not to work on the case because they felt intimidated and did not want to irk the Chinese government, a decision which came about after meeting with a Chinese diplomat.
Rodriguez said that a young Chinese resident of the area was finally persuaded to act as an interpreter, and helped the fishermen at Wednesday’s court appearance.
The fishermen were seized by police on May 6, while they were fishing in waters near Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea, 111 kilometres (69 miles) off Palawan.
They were charged with poaching an endangered species, after hundreds of turtles were purportedly found on their vessel. The charge carries a maximum jail term of 20 years,.
The case has added to an already tense situation between the Philippines and China, over matters of the disputed waters.
In a previously issued statement, the Chinese government said it does not recognise the case, as the fishermen were fishing legally in waters belonging to China. Chinese officials demanded the fishermen be released immediately.
The Philippines, on the other hand, remains staunch on its own claims over the shoal, which is part of its exclusive economic zone and over 1,000 kilometres from the nearest major Chinese land territory.