MANILA (UPDATE)—A court has convicted 8 Philippine Coast Guard personnel of homicide for the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman off the northernmost province of Batanes in May 2013, which had sparked a diplomatic row between Taipei and Manila.
The Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 15 sentenced the accused to imprisonment of 8 years, 1 day to 14 years, 8 months and 1 day, on top of P50,000 in civil indemnity and P50,000 in moral damages for the death of Hong Shi Cheng in the Balintang Channel.
Among those convicted were Coast Guard Cmdr. Arnold dela Cruz, Seaman Second Class 2 Nicky Aurelio, and Seamen First Class Edrando Aguila, Mhelvyn Bendo II, Andy Gibb Golfo, Sonny Masangkay, Henry Solomon and PO2 Richard Corpuz.
The Balintang incident had prompted Taipei to impose sanctions against Manila, which were lifted only after a Philippine official traveled to Taiwan to apologize while the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) recommended filing of charges against the 8 accused.
The Coast Guard personnel initially sought the dismissal of the case for insufficiency of evidence but the court denied their demurrer in October 2018 and stood by its ruling earlier this year.
Six of them had claimed there was no "personal and positive identification" of them as the persons who committed the crime.
But Judge Eduardo Ramon Reyes cited the testimonies of a Taiwanese forensic official and an NBI ballistics expert showing that the Taiwanese vessel was riddled with bullets and that the slugs found in the boat matched the firearms recovered from the accused's vessel.
He also included the accused's own sworn statements, which claimed that a warning shot was fired but the Taiwanese vessel allegedly almost hit the Philippine Coast Guard vessel.
"The foregoing circumstances prove not only the identity of the accused but also their participation and collective responsibility in the death of victim Hong Shi Cheng. They reveal a unity of purpose and concerted action evidencing their conspiracy to kill him," he said.
"With the accused conspiring, with intent to kill, killed victim Hong Shi Cheng with no legal justification duly proven, the moral certainty that produces conviction of the accused for homicide in an unprejudiced mind has been satisfied," he added.
Coast Guard lawyers said they would contest the conviction before the Court of Appeals.
The 8 personnel "just did their duty defending our territorial integrity," said PCG Spokesperson Capt. Armand Balilo.
"Let us not forget the Taiwanese boat was stealing from the Philippines. That is the bottom line: the PCG was protecting the Philippines from the Taiwanese thieves," lawyer Rodrigo Moreno said.
No poaching complaint has been filed against the Taiwanese fishermen, said Balilo.
The court granted the convicted Coast Guard personnel's plea to remain out on bail pending appeal.
"They are of course hoping that after filing the appeal and review we would get a reversal of the decision. As we have told them a while ago, we will continue to support them and Coast guard men and women are behind them," Balilo told ANC's Dateline Philippines.