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Taiwan to lift sanctions against PH|
8 Coast Guards face raps over Balintang shooting
TAIPEI—Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Wednesday it would push for the lifting of sanctions against the Philippines after Manila recommended homicide charges against Coast Guard personnel who shot and killed a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman in Philippine waters.
Calling Manila’s move a “constructive response,” the ministry said it would recommend the Taipei government improve relations, including lifting sanctions imposed after the shooting.
In a separate move Taiwanese prosecutors on Wednesday charged eight Filipino Coast Guard personnel with homicide following the killing on May 9.
The indictment was considered symbolic as it is unlikely that the Philippines will allow the accused to be tried in Taiwan due to the lack of formal diplomatic ties.
“The Philippine Coast Guard illegally chased an unarmed fishing boat for 75 minutes and fired more than 100 shots at it, which was clearly not proper defense… and with an intent to kill,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Among the eight charged with murder are the commanding officer Arnold dela Cruz and seaman first class Edrano Aguila, who was found to have fired the M14 rifle that killed the 65-year-old fisherman, Hung Shih-cheng.
Taiwan’s indictment came on the same day as Justice Department investigators recommended homicide charges against the eight Coast Guard personnel.
The incident happened in waters near a Philippine island that Taiwan also claims as part of its economic zone.
Taiwan reacted furiously, announcing a ban on the hiring of new workers from the Philippines and suspending official trade and academic exchanges.
The two sides later swapped teams of investigators following weeks of acrimony over the death.
In Manila, National Bureau of Investigation chief Nonnatus Rojas said the eight Coast Guard personnel were the ones who admitted firing their weapons.
“The NBI report recommends that criminal charges of homicide be filed against these eight PCG personnel,” Rojas said.
He said the criminal complaint would be lodged before the state prosecutor’s office.
Under the law, the prosecutor will then determine whether there is enough evidence to take the case to court.
If convicted, the eight could face 12 to 20 years in jail for homicide, Rojas said.
While the shooter of the gun that killed the Taiwanese fisherman was identified, all eight would face the same charge under the principle that they acted in conspiracy, Rojas told reporters.
Nine other Coast Guard personnel who were on the same vessel, as well as three fisheries bureau employees with them, will not be charged, he said.
President Benigno Aquino III had repeatedly apologized for the incident that caused a rift with Taiwan, but Taipei rejected the apologies as insincere.
Rojas said there was no evidence to support the Coast Guard claim that the Taiwanese fishing vessel had tried to ram their boat.
“The video [footage of the incident] failed to prove the attempted ramming,” he said, adding “the intent to ram was not clear.”
The commanding officer, Dela Cruz, also faces obstruction of justice charges for allegedly tampering with evidence, ordering the falsification of his unit’s monthly gunnery reports to reflect a smaller amount of ammunition used during the shooting. The same charge was also recommended against Seaman First Class (SN1) Mhelvin Bendo, SN1 Marvin Ramirez, and Lt. Junior Grade Martin Bernabe.
The NBI report quoted Ramirez as saying he was instructed by Bernabe to splice portions of the video footage that “tended to incriminate the PCG crew, viz, the portions which showed the crew firing at the Taiwanese vessel.”
The NBI said that while the Coast Guard had given the Taiwanese vessel ample warning, there was “no conclusive justification for the use of deadly force against the fishing boat.”
Rojas said the factual issue boils down to a question on whose statements are more credible and which among the two opposing crews is telling the truth.
“The determination on whose version is credible rests with the investigating prosecutor or the trial judge,” Rojas said.
He said both sides are free to present additional evidence during the preliminary investigation or courtroom trial.
The NBI report added that the burden of proof on the alleged ramming attempt fell squarely on the Coast Guard.
The NBI also disputed Taiwan’s claim that the incident occurred in its territory.
“Without a doubt, the incident transpired within the waters over which the Philippines exercises jurisdiction and sovereign rights,” the NBI said.
“The maritime law enforcement operation conducted against the Taiwanese fishing vessel was validly,” it added.
The NBI, which conducted the investigation in Manila and Taiwan, submitted its report last Tuesday Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who transmitted it to the President.