The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has said that the 28 Chinese poachers arrested on December 10 at Helen Reef will not be charged, and will be free to depart Palau’s waters once their 21-day quarantine is over this Friday.

The decision to release the Chinese poachers without charging them was made mainly in response to concerns of COVID transmission and the costs of detaining the fishermen for longer, says the MOJ.

Director Victor Remengesau of the Bureau of Maritime Security & Fish and Wildlife Protection has previously said that the Chinese fishing vessel will be escorted out of Palau’s territorial waters by the Remeliik II, to ensure that they have no intention of loitering.

Investigations determined that the fishermen had poached around 500 pounds of sea cucumber in Helen Reef, and had attempted to bribe the PAN Rangers in Hatohobei State prior to their arrest by the Remeliik. The Division of Marine Law Enforcement reported that, in addition to the illegal catch, it had confiscated $20 thousand in US currency, liquor, and tobacco which had allegedly been offered in the bribe. It is uncertain whether or not anything else will be confiscated prior to their release.

The Office of the Attorney General reported that Vice President Raynold Oilouch has sent a letter to the Chinese Government regarding the detainment of its nationals, but received no response.

The Chinese nationals have been kept in quarantine aboard their vessel off of Marine Law Dock in Malakal since Saturday, December 12, and have since been assigned a defense attorney from the Office of the Public Defender. Earlier this week, it was reported that the Chinese crew had nearly run out of food and gas for cooking, but a donation from several individuals including former President Johnson Toribiong supplied them with food such as rice and chicken, and propane gas.

Upon their initial arrival and detainment, Director Remengesau asserted that the government does not want the Chinese nationals to come ashore, out of fear that some of them could be carrying COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.

“We don’t want [the Chinese fishermen] to be here any longer than they have to,” said Director Remengesau, although he added that it was important that the arrest had been made, in order to enforce the law and discourage unlawful entry.

The MOJ has yet to say if the release will be accompanied by any stipulations. Poachers who have been arrested in Palau in the past have been dealt punishments such as ship-burning, fines, and seizure of fishing gear.

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