NBI probe points to Coast Guard negligence

Posted at 05/25/2013 12:19 PM | Updated as of 05/25/2013 12:19 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Initial findings in the investigation into the fatal shooting of a suspected Taiwanese poacher off Batanes last May 9 indicate criminal negligence on the part of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel involved, a source privy to the probe said yesterday.

This developed as Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said a team of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents is ready to fly to Taiwan and is just awaiting information on some “arrangements” with Taipei through the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO).

De Lima said the NBI has “bits and pieces of initial findings” and is beginning to draft a report.

The STAR learned from a source that coast guard personnel manning the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) patrol vessel may face criminal and administrative charges for possible violations of rules of engagement, excessive use of force, and neglect of duty.

PCG personnel admitted having fired warning shots at two Taiwanese vessels some 39 nautical miles off Bantayan Island in the Balintang Channel. Authorities said such warning shot is not allowed under the rules of engagement.

There is excessive use of force if the 50 bullet holes reportedly found on the fishing vessel can be proven to have come from the firearms of PCG personnel.

In its incident report submitted to the NBI, the PCG confirmed that its personnel left the site after firing at the fishing vessel without checking on the victim.

The source said they have to wait for the findings of the NBI team from Taiwan before making conclusions.

De Lima again refused to confirm the “initial findings,” but said NBI agents are expected to gather enough evidence in Taiwan to “validate these preliminary results.”

She also said there’s no more stopping the flight of the NBI team to Taipei.

“I have standing clearance for the NBI team to leave anytime once all the needed arrangements have been made through MECO in Taiwan,” De Lima told reporters.

MECO head Amadeo Perez, however, said visas had already been issued to eight NBI agents and forensic experts and that De Lima already agreed to the demand of Taiwanese investigators that they be allowed to see the video footage of the May 9 encounter.

“Secretary De Lima said she did not refuse to show them the video. She said the Taiwanese investigators would be allowed to see the video once their delegation is completed since some of them were still on their way here,” Perez explained in a phone interview. “It would be up to Sec. de Lima when she wants the team to leave.”

But when asked for confirmation, the justice secretary replied: “I myself am waiting for word from MECO. I will announce once there’s development.”

Earlier, De Lima said she did not want the flight schedule announced to prevent the investigation from getting undue media attention.

Self-defense

Meanwhile, the PCG released a three page incident report detailing how its men had to defend themselves from the Taiwanese boat’s hostile maneuver.

“One of the Taiwanese vessel maneuvered to ram our starboard bow. This unit executed reverse (gear) to avoid collision,” the report read.

In its initial report, the NBI said MCS-3001, a 35-meter patrol vessel jointly manned by PCG and BFAR personnel, set sail in the northern part of Batanes last May 8 to conduct patrol and surveillance.

The next day, the PCG-BFAR crew spotted several radio beacons with two floating buoy markers some 39 nautical miles east of Balintang Islands. They suspected that the buoys were markers for several Taiwanese fishing vessels. Soon after spotting the buoys, the PCG-BFAR vessel was able to find the location of the Taiwanese fishing boats.

“While on meeting situation, this unit then sounded warning through PA system and blow horn for the Taiwanese fishing vessel to stop for the conduct of fishing… (the PCG) fired warning shots to alert the fishing vessel until the fishing vessel stopped and one of the crew of the fishing vessel went outside,” the PCG said.

The PCG report said that when its vessel got near the fishing boat Guang Ta Hsin-28, the latter revved up its engine and made threatening moves.

The PCG crew fired another round of warning shots but the Taiwanese vessel engaged the PCG-BFAR vessel instead in a high-speed chase.

This prompted the MCS-3001 to open fire at Guang Ta Hsin-28 with the intention of disabling its engine but accidentally killed Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng.

“To stop the fishing vessel, this unit announced to fire for effects the engine side section of said Taiwanese fishing vessel to immobilize her (boat) and stop her (boat) engine,” the report read.

While chasing the Guang Ta Hsin, the MCS-3001 crew spotted at least two unidentified boats.

With the presence of two unidentified boats in the vicinity, MCS-3001 disengaged from the chase.

Easing tension

Judging from church attendance, threats to Filipinos in Taiwan have lessened, a Taipei-based Filipino priest said yesterday.

Fr. Leonilo Mantilla, parish priest of St. Christopher’s Church in Taipei’s Zhongshan District, told Radio Veritas that church attendance is back to normal some two weeks after parishioners avoided going out of their homes for fear of reprisals from Taiwanese following the May 9 incident. Almost all of St. Christopher’s parishioners are Filipinos, according to Mantilla.

“At this moment, the situation is very cool and the tensions have eased,” Mantilla said, adding that Taiwanese local officials were helping ease the tension. -- With Evelyn Macairan