Ship owner, crew in deeper trouble
Bribery, poaching, illegal entry among raps readied
The owner and the 12 crewmembers of the Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef on Monday are in deeper trouble as they will be facing multiple charges, including bribery, to be filed by various government agencies.
The Tubbataha Management Office said on Wednesday that the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine Navy, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Western Command, Bureau of Customs, the Department of Environment and Natural and the Municipality of Cagayancillo were working together to consolidate the charges.
President Benigno Aquino’s earlier vowed that the government will apply the ‘full force of the law’ against the ship’s owner and crew.
Mr. Aquino said the government will execute Republic Act 10067 that says that anyone entering the protected marine zone is considered a poacher.
“May mga kaukulang penalties, may imprisonment, may fine (There are corresponding penalties, imprisonment and fine) – and our job as the executive department is to execute the law,” Aquino said.
The president said the investigation would also look into the possible liability of those tasked to watch over the reef.
But the TMO said the incident may have happened when the radar was not switched on.
TMO chief Angelique Songco said that they switch the radars only every three hours, saying that they do not have the resources to keep the radar equipment on for 24 hours every day.
“Sometimes it’s between those three hours that our rangers are blind,” Songco said.
She added that even if they had detected the Chinese vessel, the fishermen would have likely ignored their attempts to communicate with them via radio, saying that Chinese vessels in the past had refused to answer radio calls.
The president said he was upset when he learned about the incident, which happened nearly two months after the remaining piece of the USS Guardian was extracted from the area.
The US minesweeper ran aground the protected marine sanctuary, which the Unesco declared as a World Heritage Site, on January 17, destroying 2,345 square meters of corals.
“When (Transportation secretary Joseph Emilio) Abaya reported that to me, my answer to him was: This is too much. We have just had it with Guardian, now here comes another.”
The President said that in the light of the recent grounding, the government is now planning to add more lighted buoys in the area and to expand the so-called buffer zone to protect it from intruders.
“Palalakihin ‘yung dapat ‘huwag kayong mag-transit near this area’ to forestall any possibility na magkaroon na naman ng grounding incident,” he said. (We will enlarge the no-transit area to forestall any possibility of another grounding incident).
He added that it was in the “national interest” to preserve the reef “to the fullest extent possible” because of its rich ecosystem, considered as “one of the natural wonders of the world.”
The TMO said that the fishermen will be charged with violating sections 19 (Unauthorized Entry), 20 (Damages to the Reefs), 26 (Destroying, Disturbing Resources) and 27 (Poaching by Foreigners) of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Act of 2009.
“The main case would be the violation of Sec. 27 or Poaching by Foreigners,” the TMO said.
The fishermen would also be charged of violating Article 212 of the Revised Penal Code, or the law against bribery, as they reportedly tried to buy their way out by offering the rangers US $2,400 (roughly (P99,000).
The bribery attempt was reported by Glenda Simon, the public information officer of the TMO. Simon said the TMO will file the bribery case.
A television report added that Chinese embassy officials Consul General Shen Zicheng and 3rd Secretary Li Jian visited their compatriots on Tuesday and requested Western Command officials to release of the detained fishermen.
The Westcom, however, told the officials that they had no authority to decide on the matter.
Commodore Enrico Villanueva, Philippine Coast Guard – Palawan District Commander, earlier said that while no fish or marine life were found inside the Chinese vessel, the fishing gear inside it can already be used as evidence in the illegal fishing charges.
The TMO said the vessel was the 7th Chinese vessel caught in the restricted waters since 2002. The last incident, involving F/V Hoiwan, happened in 2006.
The 12 fishermen are now being detained in a holding facility in Puerto Princesa, where the cases would be filed against them.
Meanwhile, PCG spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, said they were already working out with a plan to defuel first the Chinese vessel to make sure there will be no accident of oil spill that may again put the reef in danger.
He said they will discharge the fuel while figuring out how to remove the vessel off the reef if high tide would not be able to float it.
The PCG and TMO said they are now preparing a team to conduct an initial inspection on the possible damage on the reef caused by the recent grounding. With Florante Solmerin
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