CA acquits 12 Chinese fishermen of poaching at Tubbataha Reef

MANILA, Philippines – Twelve Chinese fishermen convicted of illegal fishing at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) were recently acquitted by the Court of Appeals (CA). 

In an 18-page decision by the CA’s Special 16th Division, the court reversed an earlier ruling of the Puerto Princesa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 51, which found the 12 fishermen guilty of violating Republic Act Number 10067 or the Tubbataha Act of 2009 for poaching.

The CA reversed the Puerto Princesa RTC's decision "for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt" and ordered the immediate release of the convicts.

Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID) Palawan Field Office alien control officer Ferdinand Tendenilla told Rappler that the Chinese fishermen were turned over to them at around 3 pm on Monday, December 19.  

The fishermen are currently in a temporary shelter pending the deportation order from the BID's main office. 

"Once it's done, that's the time the main office will instruct the immigration office in Palawan to bring them to Manila for the implementation of deportation," said Tendenilla in a phone interview.  

The Chinese fishermen were arrested after their 48-meter boat hit and badly damaged the Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage-listed coral reef, on April 8, 2013.  

Authorities later discovered about 2,000 illegally killed pangolins, a scaly anteater prized for its meat and scales in China, inside the vessel.

The CA argued that the 12 fishermen were convicted despite "weak evidence of the prosecution."

"The RTC was correct in ruling that the State failed to prove that appellants were engaged in fishing, gathering, purchasing and/or possessing any fishery products within the TRNP at the time of their capture as their vessel merely ran aground. True, there were nets inside the vessel but there was no showing that they used the same for fishing within the TRNP," read the CA decision. 

Meanwhile, Tendenilla did not disclose the exact date for the fishermen's deportation. But he said this would be done at the soonest possible time by the Chinese embassy.

Tubbataha Management Office Manager Angelique Songco, however, was saddened by the CA ruling. 

"Hindi siya magandang regalo para sa Pasko (It's not a good gift this Christmas)," she said.

Songco added that she is now consulting lawyers on possibly filing a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court. –