By Joseph Arnel Deliverio
Twelve Vietnamese fishermen detained here for stealing endangered marine animals two years ago have yet to be formally charged in court simply because no interpreter has showed up to help get the case moving. The 12, who are detained at the Sulu provincial jail, are being held for illegally entering Philippine territory and for violating Republic Act 9147, the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.
“For lack of an interpreter, they still have to be arraigned in the two major cases,” said Jail Officer Mohammad Sangkula.
“Actually, a representative from the Vietnamese embassy came to Zamboanga City to look into their case,” said Marciano Damih, chief of the provincial office of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). The Embassy has made no follow-ups since then, he added.
The Philippine Coast Guard caught the 12 Vietnamese fishermen aboard a Malaysian vessel carrying black corals and 87 dead hawksbill turtles near Pangutaran Island, Sulu on April 22, 2012.
Fifty-nine of the hawksbill turtles were female adults, classified as a critically endangered species.
In the inventory report of experts from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the dead female turtles had fresh scratches and markings in their shells indicating that they had just mated.
The 59 dead female turtles would have produced around 42,000 eggs a month after mating, had they not been caught and killed by the Vietnamese poachers, the report said.
The seas in the southwestern side of the country have been a favorite hunting ground of poachers. Periodically over the past years, authorities have caught Vietnamese, Chinese, or Taiwanese fishermen stealing endangered animals from the area, which is part of one of the world’s richest in marine biodiversity.
In the past months, groups of Vietnamese fishermen have been caught poaching near Palawan, the Philippine island closest to Vietnam. Just last month, a court in Puerto Princesa sentenced another group of 12 Vietnamese fishermen to six months in jail and fined them $100,000 for illegal fishing.
The case of those caught in Sulu, however, has been in limbo. The Vietnamese detainees in Sulu, who have learned to communicate in bits of Filipino and Tausug languages, said they have received neither support nor supplies from their government and families back home.
The 12 Vietnamese poachers are detained at the Sulu provincial jail. Photo by K.A.K. PRODUCTIONS
They said they wish to be reunited with their families in Vietnam, and that they regret what they had done.
The 12 are charged with five violations including illegal entry and violations of Republic Act 9147 for catching, possession, and killing of wildlife.
They share a cell along with Filipinos accused of murder, possession of illegal drugs, robbery and other crimes. They said that food is not enough, but a BFAR representative belied their claims. “Some of them even became healthier,” the BFAR person said.
They Vietnamese nationals occupy their time and make a small living by turning recycled plastic into souvenir items.
“Pero pag wala silang ginagawa, umiiyak sila dahil nami-miss nila ang ang kanilang mga pamilya (But if they have nothing to do, they cry because they miss their families),” a Filipino fellow detainee said.
Trong Van Hoang, the boat captain and leader of the group, was asked to record a message in Vietnamese in front of a video camera, but broke down before he could finish. Two other fishermen volunteered to talk but with the same results.
“Mababait sila. Sila nga ang naglilinis dito sa compound (They are meek and obedient, they are the ones who clean the jail compound),” said a jail guard.
Because of their good conduct, the Vietnamese detainees are among the chosen few allowed to leave their cells to clean the jail and cut grass in the compound, the guard added.
A lawyer from the Public Attorney’s Office handles their case but the assigned interpreter who is from Palawan has never appeared. Hence, the Regional Trial Court in Sulu could not schedule the group’s arraignment.
An arraignment is part of a legal process before any trial begins where the charges against a person are formally read in a language he or she best understands.
Under Philippine laws, the marine turtles are protected, being “key players in the marine environment where they are considered as major transporters of nutrients.”
If convicted, the 12 Vietnamese poachers will serve 10 to 20 years.
(The author helped write the script for a documentary on sea turtles being produced by K.A.K. Productions.)