By Erma Edera and Roy Mabasa
A Manila court on Wednesday has convicted eight members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for killing of a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman in Balintang Channel near Batanes in May, 2013.
Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 15 Judge Eduardo Ramon Reyes found the PCG personnel “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” of homicide over the fatal shooting of Hong Shih-Cheng, a Taiwanese fisherman, after a sea chase off the coast of Batanes and Babuyan Islands.
Found guilty were Coast Guard Cmdr Arnold dela Cruz, SN2 Nicky Aurelio, SN1 Edrando Aguila, SN1 Mhelvyn Bendo II, SN1 Andy Gibb Golfo, SN1 Sonny Masangkay, SN1 Henry Solomon, and PO2 Richard Corpuz.
They were sentenced to eight years and one day to 14 years, eight months and one day in prison.
The government of Taiwan on Wednesday welcomed the verdict and expressed its “gratitude and respect to the Philippine judicial system.”
“Today, the long-awaited justice in this shooting incident was served, but it was a hard and a bitter experience for both countries. We now have to move on from this tragic incident, and determine how to further enhance the bilateral relationship between our two countries,” the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) said in a statement.
TECO said it was clear in the evidence presented by Philippine prosecutors that the accused members of the PCG “blatantly disregarded applicable international law, which is universally accepted by the global community, including the Philippines.”
In the 32-page ruling, Judge Reyes said while the prosecution did not present direct evidence to prove who killed the Taiwanese fisherman, it presented circumstantial evidence sufficient to prove the guilt beyond reasonable doubt of the Coast Guard personnel.
“After sifting through the evidence presented, the Court is convinced that the prosecution has been able to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of homicide,” the ruling read.
The court also ordered each of the convicted PCG personnel to pay the heirs of the killed fisherman P50,000 in civil indemnity and P50,000 in moral damages.
“[T]he prosecution has clearly established the intent to kill on the part of the accused as shown by their act of shooting the Guang Da Xing No. 28 vessel with the use of high-velocity firearms while they were chasing it,” the court said.
“Intent to kill is also manifest considering the 53 points of impact found in Guang Da Xing No. 28 vessel. No extenuating circumstance was presented by the accused to show that the killing of the victim was legally justified,” the court added.
The lawyer of the accused said they would appeal the judgment with the Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the court has allowed the eight to remain in liberty pending the appeal of their case.
Homicide is a bailable offense and they could continue enjoying temporary liberty until the verdict becomes final.
According to Armand Balilo, PCG spokesman, they respect the court’s decision but maintained “they just did their duty defending our territorial integrity.”
The Balintang incident caused a diplomatic spat between the Philippines and Taiwan.
The incident prompted the Taiwanese government to stop the issuance of visas to Filipino seeking jobs in Taiwan. It was lifted after a Philippine government official traveled to Taiwan to send an official letter of apology and after the National Bureau of Investigation recommended the filing of charges against the accused.
In 2013, the PCG said the eight personnel acted in “self-defense” when they shot the Taiwanese fishing vessel Kuang Ta Hsing carrying three Taiwanese and an Indonesian who attempted to ram a vessel belonging to the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Batanes.
However, the Taiwanese said their ship came under attack and the PCG personnel opened fire without any warning.
“May the verdict, in this case, serve, not only as a symbol of justice but also a testament to the solid relationship and deep mutual trust between Taiwan and the Philippines,” the TECO said.