Judge throws out case of illegal import of rosewood

She dismisses case involving $71m of logs without calling for the defence, in rare move

A judge has dismissed the case against a managing director and his firm for allegedly importing about 30,000 rosewood logs worth US$50 million (S$71 million) without a permit after she ruled that the goods were in transit here and Hong Kong-bound.

District Judge Jasvender Kaur held that prosecutors had not made the case to justify the charge under the Endangered Species Act against Mr Wong Wee Keong and his company Kong Hoo.

In a rare outcome, she dismissed the case without calling for the defence. Prosecutors had called 10 witnesses to support their case.

"The test for calling the defence at the close of the prosecution's case is whether the prosecution has led some not inherently incredible evidence, which assuming such evidence to be reliable, would establish the elements of the offence," she wrote in judgment grounds released on Oct 28.

The goods, which were acquired from Madagascar by Kong Hoo, were seized in March last year when a cargo vessel carrying them berthed at Jurong Port. They were meant to be restuffed into containers and shipped to Hong Kong. It was reported then to be the largest amount of rosewood logs ever seized.

Rosewood is a restricted item listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), to which Singapore is a signatory. A Cites listing means permits are required for the commercial import and export or re-export of a specified species. However, the Madagascar authorities had cleared the items for export. A delegation came to Singapore in December last year to look into the case and, the next month, Madagascar's Minister of Environment, Ecology and Forests confirmed that the export documents were authentic, noted the judge.

The legal defence team comprising lawyers K. Muralidharan Pillai, Paul Tan and Choo Zheng Xi argued that as the evidence showed the cargo was meant to be shipped to Hong Kong, "it must surely be a more reasonable inference that the cargo was not meant to be imported".

The judge agreed, finding that the goods were solely brought into Singapore to be containerised for shipment. There was no evidence it was meant to leave the Jurong Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and be distributed, stored or sold in Singapore, she said. The judge ruled that the items were in transit as they had remained within the FTZ and were therefore under the control of Customs officers, pending the ship-out.

"There was no evidence to establish that the logs were imported into Singapore. Accordingly, a permit was not required," she said.

A spokesman for the Attorney- General's Chambers said: "The prosecution will study the grounds of decision carefully before deciding on the next course of action."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Judge throws out case of illegal import of rosewood'. Print Edition | Subscribe