Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - A Philippine court has ordered the release of nine Chinese fishermen, who have spent the last year in a prison for "poaching hundreds of giant tortoises", a protected species in archipelago. The arrest in May 2014, took place in a disputed area of the South China Sea, which is the subject of a territorial standoff between Manila, Hanoi and Beijing that have converging interests in the area.
Yesterday Palawan Regional Court Judge Ambrosio de Luna, ordered the release after the fishermen's lawyer had filed a new application. The nine fishermen were freed after serving six months of the sentence. The prosecutor did not want to oppose the judge's decision.
At this time the group of nine fishermen are still in the custody of Philippine immigration authorities in Palawan, waiting for the Chinese consulate to follow formalities and then they will proceed with their repatriation. Their arrest dates back to May 6 last year at Half Moon Shoal, where they were surprised by the Philippine Navy, carrying at least 555 specimens of protected species.
Their arrest further increased tensions between the Philippines and China in the Asia-Pacific seas. In fact the dispute is still in progress and seems to be constantly threatening to spill over onto the international stage. Beijing has lobbied hard for the release of the fishermen and their vessel, claiming they were arrested in Chinese waters.
At the time of detention in Beijing he had issued a warning to the Philippines, telling them not to commit "provoking acts, in order to avoid damaging bilateral relations in the future."
The Philippines – which is seeking a non-binding international ruling at the UN court – together with Vietnam, is increasingly worried about Beijing's imperialism in the South China and East China seas.
The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. In recent months, China has used various political, economic and diplomatic means to hamper non-Chinese vessels from fishing or moving through the disputed waters.
For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line – which covers 80% of the 3.5 km2 - is both "illegal" and "irrational".
Anyone with a hegemonic sway over the region would have a strategic advantage, in terms of seabed (oil and gas) development, but also in trade since two thirds of the world's maritime trade transit through it, estimated to be worth 5 billion dollars.