Illegal import of rare logs

Man taking legal issue to apex court

Rosewood logs seized in March 2014 that were worth US$50 million (S$68 million). They were imported by Singaporean businessman Wong Wee Keong and his firm without a permit from AVA.
Rosewood logs seized in March 2014 that were worth US$50 million (S$68 million). They were imported by Singaporean businessman Wong Wee Keong and his firm without a permit from AVA.PHOTO: AVA

Court of Appeal to rule on criteria to be met before controlled plant, animal is 'in transit'

A Singaporean businessman who was acquitted twice before he was found guilty of importing rare Madagascan rosewood logs has seen yet another twist to his case.

Yesterday, Wong Wee Keong, 56, succeeded in his application to file a criminal reference with the Court of Appeal. He is asking the apex court to rule on what conditions need to be met before a controlled plant or animal, for instance, is "in transit". These include whether it is necessary to prove that the controlled species, at the time of its entry into Singapore, would leave the country at a defined date.

The application for a hearing on two questions of law of public interest was heard by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang.

The Chief Justice said permission should be given in this case "so that there is a clear pronouncement of what the applicable legal tests are".

In March 2014, 29,434 logs - weighing 3,235 tonnes and worth US$50 million (S$68 million) - were seized by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) from a ship berthed in Jurong Port.

A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime had called it the "largest seizure of rosewood ever made".

Rosewood is a controlled species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Singapore is a signatory.

Under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, rosewood cannot be imported without a permit from AVA.

Wong and his firm were first acquitted in 2015, with the case dismissed in the middle of the trial. The judge ruled that the logs were not being imported but were in transit, as they were headed to Hong Kong.

The prosecution appealed to the High Court, which sent the case back for the trial to continue, but Wong and his firm were acquitted.

When the prosecution appealed a second time, the judge in March said that under the law, a restricted species is considered to be in transit only if it is "brought into Singapore solely for the purpose of taking it out of Singapore". He said there must be proof the species is certain to leave Singapore at a fixed date.

However, in this case, the logs were to leave Singapore on a date that was not confirmed. In fact, their departure date depended on Wong and his firm finding a buyer in Hong Kong.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'Man taking legal issue to apex court'. Print Edition | Subscribe