MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A pre-trial hearing for nine Chinese fishermen charged with poaching 555 endangered giant sea turtles at a disputed shoal in the Spratly Islands was postponed again Monday, Philippine court and diplomatic officials said.
Authorities arrested the fishermen in May at Half Moon Shoal and seized their boat. The arrests sparked another territorial spat between the Asian neighbors in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.
The fishermen have pleaded not guilty to charges of violating the Philippine fisheries code before a special environmental court in western Palawan province.
Judge Ambrosio de Luna postponed a pre-trial hearing on Monday until an interpreter from Manila arrives, said his clerk, Hazel Mae Alaska. The hearing already has been reset several times due to the lack of an interpreter and delays in appointing a public attorney for the fishermen, who face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $2,300 each.
Liza Jane Estalilla, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs' Palawan office, said an interpreter willing to stay in Palawan for at least a month has been found but his contract needs to be finalized.
China has pressed the Philippines to release the fishermen and their boat, saying they were apprehended in Chinese territorial waters. It told Manila not to take any more "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.
Alaska said the lack of an interpreter also delayed the start of a separate trial of 12 Chinese accused of poaching 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of protected pangolin meat.