IBP, fishermen withdraw SC petition on West PH Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 19) — It’s now officially off. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and seven fishermen have withdrawn their petition for the Supreme Court (SC) to compel the government to protect features in the West Philippine Sea.

The IBP and De La Salle University College of Law founding dean Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno have also withdrawn as counsels for 20 fishermen.

"With due regard to the plight and position of the fishermen-petitioners, the views and recommendations of the handling lawyers and the IBP chapters involved, and the matters raised and guidance by the Honorable Supreme Court, a motion has been filed for the withdrawal or discharge of the counsels for the fishermen and for the withdrawal of the petition," IBP National President Domingo Egon Cayosa said in a statement.

This came a week after Solicitor General Jose Calida submitted during the oral arguments on the writ of kalikasan petition 19 affidavits from the fishermen, saying that they are turning their backs on the case as they were clueless that they were suing the government.

This bombshell, the IBP said, “caused this case to become a media spectacle instead of being a case that presents important issues concerning the environment in the West Philippine Sea.”

The mandatory organization for lawyers moved for Calida’s manifestation struck out of the SC’s records.

The IBP also accused Calida of tainting the proceedings when he claimed that the petitioners and respondents have agreed to dismiss the writ of kalikasan petition and warned them on CNN Philippines’ The Source of disbarment for supposedly misrepresenting the petition to the fishermen.

Former SC spokesperson Theodore Te, one of the consultants in the case, previously told The Source that it is up to the high court to determine whether the petition would still hold water even if several fishermen have withdrawn from it.

Calida had said that the fishermen in the case, upon learning about the news that they were actually suing the government, sought the help of the Philippine Navy, who brought them to a certain Captain Angare, the legal officer of the Naval Forces West Palawan.

Te said this could be a conflict of interest, as the Philippine Navy is among the respondents in the case.

The IBP previously asked more time from the SC to talk to the fishermen before complying with its order to move in the premises, which would inform the high court of relevant developments in the case.

The lawyers' group was given until Friday to comply with the SC's order. Despite talks with IBP lawyers, fishermen stood pat on their decision to abandon the petition.

"Matapos po ang ating pag-uusap kahapon, isinangguni po namin ang usapin sa mga kapwa naming kasapi at aming napagkaisahang iatras niyo na lamang ang kaso, nang sa gayon ay maging tahimik na ang aming mga buhay," read a handwritten letter penned by six fishermen from Palawan.

[Translation: After our meeting yesterday, we consulted our fellow members and we decided to withdraw the case so that we would be able to live our lives peacefully.]

Another fisherman, named Wilfredo Labandelo, only pleaded for the case to be withdrawn.

Other fishermen in the case could either be no longer located or contacted.

A writ of kalikasan is a legal remedy available to any person who feels that their constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology has been violated or could be violated by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or private individual or entity.

In this case, the fishermen asked the SC to compel the government to preserve, restore, and rehabilitate Panatag Shoal, Ayungin Shoal, and Panganiban Reef, which they said have all been heavily damaged by China's artificial island-building activities.

These three sea features are all part of the West Philippine Sea, a part of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and contested by China.

In 2016, an international arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea and backed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims over virtually the entire South China Sea and ruled that the Asian giant violated the Philippines’ exclusive rights over features in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

CNN Philippines’ Anjo Alimario and Xave Gregorio contributed to this report.