MANILA, Philippines -- A former Philippine foreign secretary who accused in an international court Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity said he was barred from entering Hong Kong on Friday and held at the airport for hours.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told The Associated Press by telephone that he flew to Hong Kong for a business meeting but was blocked by immigration officers from entering.
Del Rosario said he was held at an airport immigration lounge for about six hours before being told that he was denied entry without any explanation and put on a Cathay Pacific flight back to Manila. A Hong Kong-based Filipino consular officer assisted him at the airport, he said.
"It's clearly harassment," the 79-year-old del Rosario said from the plane before taking off. He was met in Manila by a throng of journalists and TV cameras.
Del Rosario said his being held in Hong Kong was a violation of the Vienna Convention. It's an international treaty that specifies the privileges of diplomats to carry out their work without fear of coercion by a host country. Immigration personnel cited an unspecified case as the reason for denying entry, del Rosario said.
"I keep reminding them that I'm traveling on a diplomatic passport and according to the Vienna Convention, they have no right to hold me," he said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said without elaborating in a daily briefing that "it is entirely within China's sovereignty to allow or deny one's entry." China is pressing ahead with the development of sound and steady relations with the Philippines, he said.
Asked about del Rosario's privileges as a diplomatic passport holder, Lu said he should "carefully read the provisions of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations to see if he can find a specific clause that allows a foreigner to enter other countries at will as long as he holds a diplomatic passport."
In May, former Philippine Supreme Court justice and top anti-graft prosecutor Conchita Carpio-Morales said she was barred from entering Hong Kong for a vacation with her family and held for about four hours before she was ordered to take a flight back to Manila. Hong Kong airport and immigration officials later told her there was a mistake and that she could proceed with her trip to Hong Kong, but she and her family had already decided to return home.
Del Rosario and Carpio-Morales took the bold step of filing a complaint in March before the International Criminal Court against Xi and other Chinese officials over Beijing's assertive actions in the disputed South China Sea, which they say deprived thousands of Filipino fishermen of their livelihoods and destroyed the environment.
They accused Xi and other Chinese officials of turning seven disputed reefs into man-made islands, causing extensive environmental damage, and of blocking large numbers of fishermen, including about 320,000 Filipinos, from their fishing grounds.
Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua in Manila called the complaint a "fabrication." Chinese officials also raised their concern over the complaint in a meeting with Philippine officials in April, saying the case is "affecting the prestige of our leader," a Philippine official told the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
When del Rosario was foreign secretary, he also spearheaded the filing of an arbitration case to challenge the legal basis of China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds. The Philippine move was sparked by a standoff between Filipino and Chinese ships in 2013 in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing later effectively seized.
An international arbitration panel invalidated China's territorial claims in a 2016 ruling and upheld the Philippines' right to exploit marine resources, including potential undersea oil and gas deposits, in its exclusive economic zone, a stretch of coastal waters. China has ignored and defied the arbitration decision.
The legal offensive against China contrasted with President Rodrigo Duterte's rapprochement with Beijing since he took office in 2016 while often criticizing the security policies of the United States, a treaty ally.
Del Rosario has said that he and Carpio-Morales filed the complaint against Xi and others "to be able to push back against the bullying and harassment that we have been encountering from our goliath of a neighbor."
Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Bangkok, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Alice Fung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.