Charges against coast guard called in shooting of Taiwan fisherman

A Philippine investigation team on Wednesday recommended to the Department of Justice the filing of homicide charges against a Philippine Coast Guard officer and seven personnel involved in the fatal shooting of a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters in May.

Taiwan welcomed the announcement, with the island's Foreign Ministry saying it is ready to lift sanctions imposed on the Philippines following the shooting death should certain requirements be met.

In Manila, National Bureau of Investigation director Nonnatus Caesar Rojas told a news conference that Cmdr Arnold de la Cruz and seven other crew members of the Philippine patrol vessel must face preliminary investigation for the death of fisherman Hung Shi-cheng on May 9.

"There was no conclusive justification for the use of deadly force against the fishing boat," Rojas said.

He said an NBI investigation team that reviewed the footage of the shooting found "no categorical proof that the (Taiwanese) fishing boat posed an imminent or grave threat to the lives of those onboard the Philippine patrol craft."

"The NBI established conspiracy among the eight PCG personnel," Rojas said. "The NBI report pointed out to the high volume of firepower used on the Taiwanese vessel and the indiscriminate firing during the latter part of the chase as indicative of a common design to disregard the rules of engagement."

Indeed, NBI Deputy Director Virgilio Mendez, head of the investigation team, told the press conference that the coast guard failed to prove there was an "imminent threat to their lives," contrary to claims made by the Philippine Coast Guard chief in May.

"Other coast guard personnel fired direct shots at the fishing boat. They will be held liable for the death of the fisherman," Mendez said.

Mendez also said charges of obstruction of justice will be leveled against de la Cruz and three others for allegedly "tampering with the evidence during the investigation."

Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena, the Philippine Coast Guard commandant, told reporters in May his men fired in "self-defense" at a Taiwanese vessel caught poaching in the Philippines' economic zone after it tried to ram their patrol boat.

In Taipei, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Shih told a press conference that the Taiwan government will lift the 11 sanctions against Manila "in a speedy manner" after the eight coast guard personnel are indicted and matters of compensation are settled.

Relations with Manila have been strained over the shooting of Hong on May 9 some 170 nautical miles off the southeastern coast of Taiwan in an area where exclusive economic zones claimed by Taipei and Manila overlap.

Within 48 hours of the shooting, Taiwanese officials issued an ultimatum demanding a formal apology from the Philippine government, compensation for the fisherman's family, punishment of those responsible and the start of talks on a bilateral fisheries pact.

Taiwan also ejected the Philippines' top diplomatic official in the country and imposed sanctions including the suspension of visas for Filipino workers.

Shih said the preparatory fishery talks have yielded positive results as both sides agreed that the use of force should be avoided in the future to prevent the reoccurrence of any fatal shooting.

Hong's family "has reached a concrete agreement" on the compensation with the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, and Manila will send a representative to apologize to the family on behalf of Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Shih said.

Amadeo Perez Jr., chairman of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, has expressed "deep regret" over the fatal shooting and offered financial support to the victim's family.

However, the family said they would like to hear the representative use the word "apologize" and that they do not want the financial support coming from donations.

Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lin also refused to meet with Perez when he arrived in Taipei on May 15, saying Perez was not sufficiently "authorized" to handle the matter.