MANILA, Philippines—Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Thursday confirmed an Inquirer report that the National Bureau of Investigation had recommended the filing of criminal charges against coast guards involved in the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman in northern Philippine waters last month.
De Lima also confirmed the Inquirer information that the NBI, which investigated the shooting death of fisherman Hung Shih-chen here and in Taiwan, submitted its report to her on Tuesday.
In text messages and a phone patch interview, De Lima, who is in Madrid, Spain, for a conference on capital punishment, said she submitted the NBI report to President Aquino before she left Manila on Tuesday night.
She said the NBI recommended criminal and administrative charges against coast guards involved in the shooting of the Taiwanese fishing boat Guan Ta Hsin 28 in the Balintang Channel on May 9.
De Lima said she was not sure whether employees of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) were among those recommended for prosecution.
The BFAR owns the coastal patrol vessel MCS-3001, but the vessel is manned by Philippine Coast Guard personnel.
There were 17 coast guards and two BFAR employees on the MCS-3001 when the shooting happened.
Fourteen high-powered rifles were submitted to the NBI for the investigation.
De Lima declined to disclose how many personnel had been recommended for charges and on what counts, saying it was up to President Aquino if he wanted to adopt the NBI findings.
The NBI is looking to have Hung’s daughter, who brought murder charges against the Philippine Coast Guard, as private complainant in the case should Aquino approve the “recommended criminal charges,” De Lima said.
She described the NBI report as “exhaustive” and based on “objective evaluation of evidence” made after careful deliberations.
“As to whether [the findings are] acceptable, it remains to be seen,” De Lima said.
She said Taiwan’s separate investigation of Hung’s death did not influence the NBI probe.
NBI investigators and their Taiwanese counterparts sat down together to discuss results of tests, share notes and evidence, and exchange opinions, De Lima said.
But they should have reached different conclusions that De Lima said should not be too far apart.
The Coast Guard had no immediate comment on De Lima’s confirmation of the Inquirer report, which Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson for the agency, described on Wednesday as “not final” and “not official.”
Balilo said on Thursday that the Coast Guard’s position on the issue had not changed and that the command was “waiting for the official communication from the NBI.”
In a report the Coast Guard submitted to the NBI, the coast guards claimed they acted in “self-defense,” as the fishing boat tried to ram into their vessel.
But a source who told the Inquirer on Tuesday that the NBI report had already been submitted to De Lima said the investigation had disproved the coast guards’ claim.
Lawyer Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, on Thursday said bringing charges against the coast guards would not be a proper course of action for the government.
“If you [bring charges] against your own law enforcement officers for carrying out their duty, that [would send the] wrong signal to our law enforcement agents,” Batongbacal said during a visit to Coast Guard headquarters in Manila.
He said he believed the Taiwanese fishermen were poaching in Philippine waters.
“The Taiwanese were fishing illegally, we should consider that as a primary context of this incident,” he said.
The Coast Guard shooting of the Guan Ta Hsin 28, he said, happened in the course of law enforcement.
“Every law enforcement activity impliedly carries with it the responsibility that you will use force to enforce the law. Otherwise, [people would laugh at us]. Your law enforcement would be completely ineffective,” he said.
Prosecuting the coast guards would encourage poachers from any country to “have a field day because the Philippines is afraid to enforce its own laws,” he said.
Use of force
Criminal charges should be brought only if there is excessive and arbitrary use of force, he said.
Whether the use of force is excessive or arbitrary depends on the situation and the rules where law enforcers operate, he said.
“That is where you will know whether firing at a poaching vessel, which is not even showing its flag (according to reports), is justified or not,” Batongbacal said.
When a vessel at sea is not flying its flag, it is showing that it is not abiding by any law of any coastal state, he said.
“It could be an act of piracy or smuggling when you don’t fly your flag,” he said, adding that the Coast Guard acted well within its mandate.
Batongbacal said he had seen the Coast Guard video of the incident.
He said the MCS-3001 chased the Guan Ta Hsin 28 for one and a half hours in rough sea conditions.
The distance between the two vessels was 15 to 30 meters, he said.
At that distance, the coast guards could not have seen where the Taiwanese fishermen had ducked, much less aimed and fired at anyone on the moving boat.
He said the coast guards, who were armed with rifles, had a hard time hitting the fishing boat’s engine because both vessels were moving and the sea was rough.
Batongbacal said he watched the video of the encounter and did not see the coast guards doing anything “out of place or illegal.”
“I did not see laughing or happily firing away. If at all, there was only a small incident when someone smiled, which was understandable considering the tension at that time,” Batongbacal said, adding that the coast guards did not rake the fishing boat with gunfire.
A source who had seen the same video earlier told the Inquirer that the coast guards were laughing as they fired at the boat, “unprofessional” behavior that embarrassed Philippine law enforcement.—With reports from Tina G. Santos, Jerry E. Esplanada and AP