MANILA -The former Philippine chief anti-graft prosecutor was on Tuesday (May 21) denied entry to Hong Kong in what her supporters see as retaliation for a case she filed before an international court, accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity.
Ms Conchita Carpio-Morales was making her way through Hong Kong's airport just before noon when she was flagged and held for being a "security threat". No further explanations were given, according to media reports.
She was with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, who were instructed to wait for her in a separate room.
The Philippine consulate in Hong Kong intervened, and Ms Morales was allowed to enter Hong Kong at around 3pm, deputy consul-general Geminia Aguilar-Usudan told ABS-CBN News Channel.
But Ms Morales decided instead to take a 6pm flight back to Manila. "She's quite exhausted with the ordeal," said Ms Usudan.
Ms Morales' lawyer Anne Marie Corominas said in a text message to reporters: "How is a 78-year-old… a security threat in HK-China?"
She told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the former ombudsman has over 50 years of unblemished record in government service. "I don't know what the security threat (is) unless President (Xi Jinping) is afraid of her," she said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, head of the opposition Liberal Party, said: "This is clearly in retaliation for her courageous act of bringing China to court."
Ms Morales, together with former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, filed a complaint in March with the International Criminal Court (ICC), accusing the Chinese president of crimes against humanity over China's assertive actions in the disputed South China Sea.
They said these actions deprived thousands of fishermen of their livelihood and destroyed the environment.
The case was lodged before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's move to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC took effect on March 17.
Ms Morales and Mr Del Rosario accused Mr Xi of causing extensive environmental damage by sanctioning plans to turn seven disputed reefs in the South China Sea into islands.
China's island building, which started in 2013 in an effort to construct air and naval bases in the disputed waters, reportedly destroyed large expanses of coral reefs and endangered fisheries.
"It presents one of the most massive, near permanent and devastating destruction of the environment in humanity's history," said Ms Morales and Mr Del Rosario.
They also called out China's leaders for blocking over 300,000 Filipinos from their fishing grounds.
"This has seriously undermined the food and energy security of the coastal states in the South China Sea, including the Philippines."
China has long claimed virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's busiest, with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also contesting ownership of parts of it.
An arbitration tribunal at The Hague declared in July 2016 that China's claims based on historical grounds were invalid.
It also ruled that China breached its obligation under a 1982 United Nations treaty to protect the environment by undertaking island-building works and tolerating illegal fishing by Chinese nationals.
Aside from Mr Xi, Ms Morales and Mr Del Rosario's complaint also named as "perpetrators" Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jinhua.
The legal offensive against China contrasts with Mr Duterte's rapprochement with Beijing since he took office in mid-2016, while often criticising the security policies of the United States, a treaty ally.
Mr Duterte has lashed out against Washington for raising alarm over his anti-drug crackdown, which has left thousands of suspects dead and sparked two complaints charging mass murder before the ICC.