Twelve Chinese fishermen were convicted for fishing illegally in Philippine waters on 5 August.
According to The Japan Times, the fishermen were sentenced to 12 years’ jail in a Philippines court, marking the first convictions since territorial disputes over the South China Sea broke out.
In April 2013, the fishermen were travelling from Indonesia to China before they met with stormy weather and were forced to take refuge at the Tubbataha Reef, where they were caught by Philippine rangers.
Even though the reef is not claimed by China, the incident would likely intensify the tension between the neighbours.
A lawyer with the Public Attorney’s Office defending the men said they would appeal.
“We believe the Chinese fishermen are innocent, they did not intend to go into Philippine territory but were forced by bad weather,” the lawyer said.
The captain was sentenced to 12 years jail while his crew members will face prison terms ranging from six to 10 years.
All 12 of them were also ordered to pay a fine of US$100,000, and may face additional jail time for transporting endangered pangolins.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve both island and maritime claims among seven sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
The area is important for global trade flow and fishing opportunities, and is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.