Philippine court convicts Chinese fishermen of poaching giant sea turtles at disputed shoal

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MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine court convicted nine Chinese fishermen Monday of poaching and taking hundreds of endangered giant sea turtles from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, fining each of them nearly $103,000 but imposing no jail term.

The fishermen were arrested in May at Half Moon Shoal and their boat and catch of 555 endangered sea turtles were seized. The arrests sparked another spat between the Asian neighbors in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

Judge Ambrosio de Luna of the regional trial court in western Palawan province found them guilty of violating the country's fisheries code, ordering them to pay a fine of $100,000 each for poaching in Philippine waters plus 120,000 pesos ($2,666) each for taking wildlife, said Attorney Hazel Alaska, the clerk of court.

Alaska said de Luna could have imposed a jail term of up to 20 years for the taking of threatened or endangered species but decided to impose only a fine. In case the fishermen fail to pay the fine, they will have to serve a maximum of six months in jail for each of the two cases, or a total of one year.

Once the fines are settled, the fishermen will be released from the provincial jail, she said. But if they fail to pay the fine, the time spent in detention since their arrest May 6 can be counted and they can be released by next May.

China has pressed the Philippines to release the fishermen and their boat, saying they were taken in Chinese waters. Beijing warned Manila not to take any "provocative actions so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations."

The Philippines says the Chinese were arrested in its exclusive economic zone.

The shoal, called Banyue Reef in China, is claimed by Beijing as part of the Nansha island chain, known internationally as the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are claimed in whole or part by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea.

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