MANILA - The lack of an interpreter on Tuesday held up Philippine legal proceedings against nine Chinese fishermen caught with hundreds of marine turtles in a disputed South China Sea shoal.
Manila says the fishermen were within the Philippines' 200-mile (322-km) exclusive economic zone and were in possession of endangered species of turtles, a violation of a United Nations convention on trading wildlife species.
China has demanded the release of the fishermen, saying the arrest was illegal because they were caught in China's waters.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area believed to be rich in hydrocarbon deposits and fisheries. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
The Chinese fishermen's pre-trial hearing has been postponed twice and events on Wednesday may also be called off unless an interpreter is found.
"We can't find a competent interpreter for the Chinese fishermen," a member of the prosecution team, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
A Chinese businessman based in the island of Palawan in the west of the Philippine archipelago, who usually volunteers his services as interpreter in court, has begged off.
"There was an apparent pressure from the Chinese embassy," the prosecution team member added. "These people are conducting business in China and they do not want to get involved in the case."
Telephone calls to the Chinese embassy seeking comment went unanswered.
The court has asked the foreign ministry in Manila, the capital, for an official interpreter in order to avoid delay.
Lawyers appointed by the court to defend the fishermen are also having difficulty getting the Chinese embassy to certify that they can handle the criminal case.
Such a sign-off is a necessary step before they can represent the fishermen as indigent litigants.
Last month Philippine police seized a Chinese fishing boat in Half Moon Shoal in the disputed Spratly islands, about 100 miles off the coast of Palawan, and arrested 11 crew members, but later freed two because they were minors. (Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)