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Palace rejects Taiwan allegation of murder

Strategic Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang on Saturday rejected Taiwan’s allegations that Filipino coast guards had intentionally killed a Taiwanese fisherman in waters off Balintang Island in northern Philippines last week, triggering a major diplomatic row between the two countries.

Chen Wen-chi, director of Taiwan’s Department of International and Cross-strait Legal Affairs and leader of the 14-member Taiwanese investigative team that arrived in Manila on Thursday to look into the fatal shooting of Hung Shih-chen, 65, told a news conference on Saturday that the fisherman died from a single gunshot wound on the neck.

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Hung was hit by a high-velocity bullet that Chen said was fired from a high-powered firearm, most likely a machine gun or a rifle.

Most of the bullets fired at Hung’s boat, the Guang Ta Hsin 28, hit the cockpit, where the crew took cover as the Filipino coast guards strafed the fishing vessel, Chen said.

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“By combining the … evidence, it clearly shows that the Philippine law enforcers were intentionally shooting the Guang Ta Hsin 28 crew members, which indicates their intent of murder,” Chen said.

President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesperson Ricky Carandang rejected the murder allegations.

“There is an investigation [going on] so any premature statements that tend to confuse the issues and inflame passions should be avoided,” Carandang told the news agency Agence France-Presse.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima posted a statement on her department’s Twitter account urging everyone to refrain from making statements “that would further fuel or aggravate the prevailing tension between the Philippines and Taiwan.”

 

Appeal for calm

De Lima appealed to Filipinos and Taiwanese to keep calm as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) looked into the incident.

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“We advise everyone to just wait for the results of the NBI investigation and avoid making any speculations and/or premature disclosure of so-called findings or information from so-called insider sources,” De Lima said.

“What we can assure everyone, including the Taiwanese authorities and the Taiwanese people, is that the NBI is conducting a fair, thorough and expeditious probe to arrive at a just and credible conclusion. That is the NBI’s mandate and the NBI is perfectly cognizant of the seriousness and crucialness of its task,” she said.

De Lima also urged journalists to be responsible in their reporting, and ordered members of the NBI investigative team not to prematurely disclose the results of the investigation.

‘Cold-blooded murder’

Chen’s comments at the news conference echoed Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s statement in Taipei on Friday that a Philippine Coast Guard vessel’s use of automatic weapons to strafe an “unarmed and unprovocative” fishing boat was “cold-blooded murder.”

An apology issued by President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday through Manila Economic and Cultural Office (Meco) Chair Amadeo R. Perez Jr. described the shooting as an “unfortunate and unintended loss of life.”

But Taiwan rejected the apology because of the use of the words “unfortunate” and “unintended.”

“We can by no means accept such a statement,” Ma said at a meeting with scholars who participated in an International Law Association conference in Taipei on Friday.

Because the attack involved a government vessel using automatic weapons to spray an unarmed and unprovocative fishing boat with bullets, “this was no longer executing an official duty; this was cold-blooded murder,” Ma said.

“The Philippine government vessel opened fire on our fishing boat in our economic zone, killing one fisherman and seriously damaging our fishing boat,” he said.

 

International law

Ma noted that Taiwan and the Philippines were now involved in negotiations related to the case, but he said the incident highlighted the need to use international law to solve international disputes.

He said that Article 73 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that measures can be taken by a coastal state, including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings, in its exclusive economic zones to exercise its sovereignty, but it is not allowed to “open fire, much less kill.”

Ma said the Philippines is a signatory to the UN convention, and “as a decent and respectable member of the international community as it believes itself to be, it should of course abide by the rules of international law.”

He said that because of the vast overlapping area of the two countries’ exclusive economic zones, Taiwanese fishing boats have often been boarded and inspected by Philippine vessels while operating in these waters, and several Taiwanese fishermen have been killed, most recently in 2006.

But justice has never been done because the Philippines would not allow its people to come to Taiwan to stand trial, Ma said.

“The tragedy has taken place again. On the one hand, we regret this, but on the other hand we are extremely angry,” Ma said.

Negotiations

He said Taiwan would continue to negotiate with the Philippines and hoped to solve the issue in a peaceful way, but he insisted that international justice and the principle of not resolving problems through force have to be upheld.

Most members of Chen’s group returned to Taiwan on Saturday, dissatisfied that the Philippine government refused to allow a joint investigation of the killing of Hung.

Only two members of the group stayed to wait for the results of the NBI’s investigation.

Chen called a news conference to announce the findings of her group. More than 20 Taiwanese reporters, who swooped down on Manila on Tuesday to cover the investigation, attended the press conference, outnumbering the Filipino journalists covering the story.

The press conference was conducted in Mandarin and English.

Unacceptable word

Chen read a statement on behalf of Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Y. Lin criticizing the use of the word “unintended” in the letter of apology from President Aquino.

“We acknowledge the official apology, but we feel strongly that the word ‘unintended’ is totally unacceptable to the (Republic of China) government,” Chen said.

“Since the Philippine government claims that the case is still being investigated and no conclusion has been made in the ongoing investigation, there is no basis to say that it was an ‘unintended’ loss of life,” she said.

The Filipino coast guards involved in the incident claimed that the Guang Ta Hsin 28 tried to ram their vessel, the MCS-3001, but they managed to maneuver to avoid being struck.

As the fishing boat sped away, they said, a shirtless man appeared on deck and gestured as if he was daring the Philippine vessel to come after his boat.

The coast guards said they gave chase, firing at the boat’s engine to stop it.

But they gave up the chase when they saw eight or 10 more fishing boats where the Guang Ta Hsin 28 was headed.

No attempt to ram

Chen denied that the fishing boat, which carried four men, tried to ram the Philippine law enforcement vessel.

She said there was no way a fishing boat of “about 15 tons” could have tried to ram a “Philippine official vessel that is more than six times its size.”

Chen said 45 bullet holes had been found on the fishing boat. The slugs recovered from the boat were 7.62 mm bullets, which she said were “most likely” fired “from M14 rifles, M240 or M60 machine guns.”

“Most of the shots were fired at the “boat’s cockpit in which the four crew members were hiding,” Chen said.

The bullet that killed Hung was 7.62 mm, she said.

Chen said video taken by the fishing boat showed the incident happened within Taiwan’s territory and not in Philippine waters as the Filipino coast guards claimed.

In their report on the encounter submitted to Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena, the coast guards said the incident happened near Balintang Island, well within Philippine territory.

Echoing Ma

Chen said the Philippine authorities “violated accepted customs of international law.”

“According to the relevant regulations of the international maritime law, even if the Philippine law enforcers on MCS-3001 were conducting an official duty, they should follow the procedures of warning, dispelling, boarding and detaining the illegal vessel,” Chen said, echoing Ma’s statements in Taipei on Friday.

By their action, she said, the Filipino coast guards “clearly violated and totally ignored the customs of international law.”

The Taiwanese investigators said they decided to leave because of a lack of sincerity and cooperation by the Philippine authorities. With reports from Jerome Aning, AP, AFP and China Post/ANN

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TAGS: Chen Wen-chi, Hung Shih-chen, Malacañang Palace, murder, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine-Taiwan relations, Taiwan
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