Nine Chinese fishermen pleaded not guilty yesterday before an environmental court in the Philippines after they were caught with hundreds of marine turtles in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
A maritime unit of the Philippine National Police intercepted the Chinese-flagged fishing boat and arrested its 11 crew members this month at Half Moon shoal in the disputed Spratly islands.
If convicted of poaching a protected species, the men face prison terms of 12 to 20 years. They were granted bail of 70,000 pesos (HK$12,400) each.
A court-appointed lawyer entered not guilty pleas for the men in a Puerto Princesa court on Palawan island in the west Philippine archipelago. A pre-trial hearing was set for June 4.
"They agreed to participate in the trial and took the services of the public attorney's office as their counsel," Allen Ross Rodriguez, Palawan's provincial prosecutor, told reporters. The fishermen, he said, had initially declined to take part. Two fishermen were repatriated after they were determined to be minors.
Philippine prosecutors rejected Beijing's demand that the men be freed on grounds they were arrested in Chinese waters. About 350 marine turtles were seized from their boat, about 100 kilometres west of Palawan.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, believed to be rich in natural resources. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taipei also claim parts of the sea.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino this week accused China of violating an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea by carrying out land reclamation at another disputed shoal.