MANILA (Reuters) - A Philippine case against nine Chinese fishermen caught with endangered turtles at a disputed reef was held up on Tuesday due to the lack of an interpreter, which a prosecutor blamed on pressure from China.
Manila says the fishermen were within the Philippines' 200-mile (322-km) exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea with hundreds of marine turtles, in violation of a United Nations convention on trading the endangered wildlife species.
China has demanded the release of the fishermen, saying the arrest was illegal because they were caught in China's waters. It has also denied blocking the hire of an interpreter.
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 a planned session 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, usually volunteers his services as interpreter in court but has begged off this time.
"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."
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said provincial prosecutor Allen Rodriguez had told him that Chinese embassy officials did not want to participate in the proceedings.
"They don't want to provide interpreter for the Chinese fishermen," Coloma quoted Rodriguez as saying. "Judge Ambrocio de Luna and I exerted effort to look for interpreter by requesting the Chinese community here in Palawan for assistance. But they don't want to cooperate with us."
China's ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, denied his government was delaying the case and demanded the immediate release of the fishermen. "We are not blocking the hiring of an interpreter," he told Reuters.
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 say they 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. Two were later freed because they were minors.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Tom Heneghan)