PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (AFP) - Nine Chinese fishermen arrested by Philippine authorities in disputed South China Sea waters pleaded not guilty to all charges against them on Wednesday, the prosecutor said.
The nine were taken in handcuffs to a court on the western island of Palawan, in a case that has further raised tensions over competing claims by the Philippines and China in the sea.
"The judge asked the guards to remove their handcuffs, then they read out the charges. They were asked if they understood the charges and asked individually if they were guilty. They said 'no'," prosecutor Allan Ross Rodriguez said.
After the brief proceedings, the nine were taken back to a local jail where they are expected to be detained until their next hearing next month.
Police seized 11 crew members aboard a Chinese-flagged vessel on May 6 near Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea, 111km off Palawan, the most westerly island in the Philippines.
The Philippines insists it has sovereign rights to the shoal, which is part of its exclusive economic zone and more than 1,000km from the nearest major Chinese landmass.
But China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbours.
Competing claims have for decades been a source of tension, but have worsened in recent years amid complaints by the Philippines and Vietnam that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in asserting its claims.
China has demanded the Philippines free the fishermen immediately, and warned it against taking further "provocative" actions.
But the Philippines has pressed ahead with the case, charging nine of the fishermen with poaching in Philippine territory and taking a protected species. Two of the crew were released because they were minors.
The charge of taking a protected species relates to hundreds of endangered turtles, many of them dead, that were allegedly found on their boat.
If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in jail.
However other Chinese fishermen who have been caught in similar circumstances in recent years have been quietly deported, avoiding a major diplomatic row.