MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine court has ordered the release of nine Chinese fishermen who served a year in prison for poaching and taking hundreds of endangered giant sea turtles from a disputed South China Sea shoal, a court staffer said Tuesday.
Judge Ambrosio de Luna of the regional trial court in western Palawan province ordered jail officials to release the fishermen to the immigration bureau because all have served their prison sentence of 6 months for each of the two crimes and the prosecution did not object, acting clerk of court Lourdes Dadule said.
Dadule said de Luna granted the motion for release filed by the fishermen’s lawyer, which is required despite the men serving out their sentence. She said it will be up to the immigration bureau to arrange for the fishermen’s deportation.
Acting Palawan provincial jail warden Alejo P. Acosta said the men were temporarily still in his custody as of Tuesday because the immigration office in Palawan has no facility to hold them while they wait for the Chinese consul who will accompany them on their flight out of Palawan.
The fishermen were arrested in May 6, 2014, at Half Moon Shoal and their boat and catch of 555 endangered sea turtles were seized. The arrests sparked another spat between China and the Philippines in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.
In November, de Luna found them guilty of violating the country’s fisheries code, ordering them to pay a fine of $100,000 each for poaching in Philippine waters plus 120,000 pesos ($2,666) each for taking wildlife.
The fishermen could not pay the fines so instead served a 6-month prison term for each of the two crimes, as provided by law when a convict could not pay the fine imposed. Time spent detained since their arrest was counted.
China had pressed the Philippines to release the fishermen and their boat, saying they were taken in Chinese waters. Beijing warned Manila not to take any “provocative actions so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations.”
The Philippines says the Chinese were arrested in its exclusive economic zone.
The shoal, called Banyue Reef in China, is claimed by Beijing as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are claimed in whole or part by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea.