Philippines jails Chinese fishermen for infringing wildlife law

MANILA - The Philippines has jailed 11 Chinese fishermen caught with endangered sea turtles off a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, officials said on Saturday, rejecting demands from China to free the men.

China has claims on the South China Sea, an area rich in energy deposits and an important passageway traversed each year by $5 trillion worth of ship-borne goods. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the area.

The Philippine National Police on Tuesday intercepted a Chinese fishing boat carrying about 350 marine turtles off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratlys, arrested its crew and took them to the southwestern province of Palawan to face charges of violating wildlife protection laws.

If found guilty, the fishermen, who were transferred to a provincial jail late on Friday, face prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years. But each can post bail of 150,000 pesos (S$4,300) to secure temporary liberty while facing trial.

"They will remain in detention until the office of the provincial prosecutor has determined whether there is probable cause for the filing of formal charges," said Allen Ross Rodriguez, a government lawyer.

China's embassy in Manila on Thursday sent a diplomat to Palawan to interview the fishermen and work for their early release. But authorities said they must go through the judicial process.

A panel of Philippine officials has to decide separately on charges of illegal entry after the fishermen were caught about 60 miles (95 km) off Palawan, but within the country's exclusive economic zone.

China has demanded the release of the vessel and its crew, saying it has undisputed sovereignty over the area and adjacent waters in the South China Sea.

Tension is also rising in the Paracel islands after China parked its biggest mobile oil rig 120 miles (193 km) off the coast of Vietnam, with each country accusing the other of ramming its ships in the area, in the worst setback for Sino-Vietnamese ties in years.

The incidents in the Paracel and Spratlys islands are likely to be taken up by Southeast Asian leaders who are due to hold an annual summit in Myanmar's capital on Sunday.