$70m rosewood case: High Court overturns acquittal

Nod for prosecution's appeal to send case back for trial at same district court that threw it out

The acquittal of a managing director and his firm by a district court midway through a trial for illegally importing more than 29,000 endangered rosewood logs worth US$50 million (S$70 million) was reversed by the High Court yesterday.

Judicial Commissioner (JC) See Kee Oon allowed the prosecution's appeal to send the case back to the same district court.

The trial is now due to continue with Wong Wee Keong and his firm Kong Hoo putting up their defence.

The defendants are charged with importing 29,434 rosewood logs from Madagascar into Singapore without a permit. The goods were seized in March 2014 from a vessel berthed at Jurong Port.

Rosewood is a controlled species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), to which Singapore is a signatory. Under Singapore's Endangered (Import and Export) Species Act, rosewood cannot be imported without a permit from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

Last October, District Judge Jasvender Kaur threw out the case without calling for Wong and his firm to give their defence. She ruled that the prosecution had not made out a case for the defendants to answer.

Judge Kaur found that the facts of the case pointed to a "transit" situation, and not one of "import". Under the Act, a shipment of rosewood logs is considered to be in transit if it is "brought into Singapore solely for the purpose of taking it out of Singapore" and is kept under the control of the AVA director-general or an authorised officer.

First, she found the logs were brought into Singapore "solely for the purpose of containerisation to ship to Hong Kong". She also found the logs were in the Jurong Port Free Trade Zone and under the "control" of an authorised officer.

Last week, Second Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck argued that the district judge was wrong to conclude that the logs were brought into Singapore solely for the purpose of being taken out. He noted that the only consignee named on shipping documents was Kong Hoo and that the defendants could not give details of any buyers in Hong Kong.

Mr Kwek also argued that the trial judge had wrongly interpreted "control" under the Act. The logs were not under the physical or legal control of the authorities, he said.

The defence lawyers, Mr K. Muralidharan Pillai, Mr Paul Tan and Mr Choo Zheng Xi, noted the boss of a logistics firm had testified that it was hired by Kong Hoo to pack the wood into containers for shipment to Hong Kong.

Yesterday, JC See said the evidence was inconclusive and found the trial judge's interpretation was wrong. Mr Wong Siew Hong, representing Madagascar's government, was in court on a watching brief.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline '$70m rosewood case: High Court overturns acquittal'. Print Edition | Subscribe