Piñol denies pressuring Filipino fishermen to revise ramming account

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 20) — Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol on Thursday dismissed accusations he threatened Filipino fishermen into changing their tune on the supposed ramming of their boat by a Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea.

Allegations of bribery and intimidation rose after Piñol's closed-door dialogue with the 22 fishermen at a home in Occidental Mindoro on Wednesday. Facing the media after the meeting, the boat captain said he was unsure if the Chinese vessel intentionally hit their boat at midnight on June 9, contrary to his earlier pronouncements.

Piñol said in a Facebook post that all he told the fishermen during that 25-minute dialogue was an assurance that the government will provide assistance and help serve justice.

Piñol also denied that the government was bribing fishermen with fiberglass boats, ₱25,000 loan, and other financial aid.

"If critics are looking at these as bribes, what would they accuse government of if the fishermen did not get any help from government?" Piñol said.

He stressed that the fishermen did not revise earlier accounts on the incident.

"There are those among them who believe that the ramming was intentional while there are those who believe that it could have been accidental. This is why they are one in asking for an impartial maritime inquiry," he said.

Junel Insigne, captain of F/B Gem-Ver which sank after being hit by a Chinese vessel near Reed Bank, seemed in a daze after the meeting with Piñol. In previous media interviews, he was firm that their boat was intentionally rammed by the Chinese vessel. But on Wednesday, he said all that he was certain of was they were deserted by the Chinese while they were in clear distress.

"Parang binangga, parang sinadya, parang hindi rin... Ang sinadya po talaga nila (Chinese vessel) ay yung pag-iwan sa amin," he said.

[Translation: It looked like they rammed us, it seemed intentional, but it's also possible it was not...but what was really intentional was their having abandoned us.]

'There was really pressure'

Opposition lawmaker Carlos Zarate of the Bayan Muna party-list, however, believes Piñol forced the fishemen to revise their statement.

"There was really pressure. They are bombarded by so much misinformation, tini-twist ang kanilang statements. Siguro may mga pagbabanta pa," he said in a media briefing.

Former UP Mass Communications dean Luis Teodoro had the same observation when Piñol held a media briefing after his meeting with the fishermen.

"The media should point out that Agriculture Secretary Pinol was sent not only to intimidate the fishermen into changing their narrative about the sinking of the F/B Gem-Ver fishing boat; he was also practically putting words into their mouths," he said in a tweet.

Related: Regional police chief admits lapse in deploying personnel in full gear to boat captain's home

Piñol said critics will be proven wrong by the fishermen themselves.

"To check whether there was really intimidation, those who believe so could jiust talk to the fishermen now. There are no policemen guarding them now and I am no longer in the area to tutor them on what to say," he said.

Policemen in riot gear were deployed to Insigne's house, but Piñol said he was "not even aware of their presence." PBGen. Tomas Apolinario, regional police chief said they only sent personnel to provide security for Piñol and another Cabinet secretary, Energy chief Alfonso Cusi, safe as they assisted the fishermen.

Third party probe

The Philippine Coast Guard — tasked to conduct the investigation into the incident — has finished its probe. But it has yet to "harmonize" their findings with the Maritime Industry Authority, its spokesperson told CNN Philippines.

The Department of Justice said it was waiting for the results of the maritime inquiry before taking any legal action.

During a Cabinet meeting on Monday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra proposed a joint investigation with Chinese authorities. He said "referral to a neutral third party may be considered" if there are factual differences from the two countries.

China's Embassy in Manila earlier said a Chinese fishing boat was "besieged" by seven to eight Filipino boats as it was berthed near Recto Bank, internally known as Reed Bank, in the West Philippine Sea last June 9. The Chinese vessel then "accidentally" hit the Filipino boat Gem-Ver as it was trying to escape, China said. It also added that the Chinese crew was forced to abandon the Filipino fishermen, "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats." It claimed the Chinese vessel only left when other local boats came to rescue the Filipino fishermen. Filipino fishermen said these were all lies.

The Philippine Embassy in London earlier decried the "callous" abandonment of Filipino fishermen before the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a London-based specialized agency of the UN that focuses on the safety, security, and environmental impact of international shipping. Officials have said the IMO should conduct the probe. Both the Philippines and China are member states of the IMO.