Arrested Vietnamese fishermen long for home as trial begins in the Philippines

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Over 100 Vietnamese fishermen allegedly victimized by a predatory fishing contract are longing for home as their trial for illegally fishing in the Philippines begins in Palawan Province.

"We want to return to our hometowns as soon as possible," Tran Van Thai, 42, told Tuoi Tre.

Thai is one of the 122 Vietnamese fishermen arrested on May 30 when they arrived in Filipino waters under a contract with the Ho Chi Minh City-based Long Hai Long Company.

Filipino police said the papers they presented upon their arrival were illegal.

After staying on board for two weeks under Filipino police supervision, all the crew members of seven boats were taken into custody at a prison in Palawan Province. The ships' even captains were then released on bail after paying some 30,000 pesos (US$707) each.

According to the captains, on February 12, Phan Van Thoai, director of Long Hai Long, acted as the fishermen's representative and signed a contract with a Malaysian man, Kho Tho Min, who represented the Philippines-based Premiere International Interfishing. The contract was to fish in Filipino waters.

Under the contract, each of the boat ownerss paid over US$23,000 as brokerage and transport fees in order for the foreign company to acquire fishing licenses for them.

The contract's term was set for a minimum of three years. After each year, the boat owners would have to pay more fees, including those to extend their licenses, the captains told Thanh Nien.

Kho, who is currently at large, also instructed the boat owners to repaint their boats as Filipino boats and attach new license plate numbers.

Captain Tran Hut said it cost each owner up to VND100 million ($4,803) to repaint the boats.

"All the boats are newly-built or upgraded, worth between VND2.5-3.5 billion ($120,076-168,107) each," another captain said on condition of anonymity.

The three-day trial opened Wednesday.

Tran Huu Ni, 20, said he couldn't sleep because he was too worried about the trial, fearing that they wouldn't be released.

Nguyen Liem, 50, another fisherman, said he had been in such a situation after a lifetime of fishing. 

"I thought this was the last time I would ever go fishing offshore with a hope that I can earn some money to support my wife and children, but now I'm causing them misery.

"It's okay for us to suffer, but it's a pity that hundreds of people who are our wives and children suffer as well, because we are our families' breadwinners."

Thai said: "We have stayed here for three months. It's so miserable meals are insufficient, while our spirits are going down."

A fisherman was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying that the meals in prison consist only of a loaf of bread and two small dishes of rice per day.

He also said their 70 square-meter cell had only one toilet.

Meanwhile, many people have fallen sick with fever, flu, headaches and diarrhea, the newspaper reported, adding that two of them were once hospitalized for extreme diarrhea.

The seven captains, meanwhile, are currently living in the Bayview Lodge boardinghouse for 2,500 pesos ($58.9) per month.

Do Thanh Hao, a captain, told Thanh Nien the group shares a 20 square-meter room which is dirty, airless and has almost nothing except a damaged electric fan.

"When will we be able to return to Vietnam?" he asked.

Their families are asking the same questions.

Nguyen Nhu, father of fisherman Nguyen Van Nam, said: "We hope that the Philippines' judges will understand that the fishermen didn't commit violations, but were cheated by some one else, and release them and return equipment so they can go home and continue earning a living."

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