$67m rosewood case

Judge affirms her earlier acquittal

She again throws out case against director and company for allegedly importing rosewood without a permit

A district judge threw out the case against a director and his company for allegedly importing US$50 million (S$67 million) worth of rosewood without a permit, pointing out that prosecutors had "flip- flopped" on the charge against them.

"Initially, the allegation was that the goods were in transit without a valid Cites export permit.

"Subsequently, this allegation was abandoned and amended to importation without a permit from AVA," said District Judge Jasvender Kaur yesterday.

The judge's ruling affirmed her acquittal of the two defendants last year when she ruled they had no case to answer. Prosecutors appealed to the High Court, which reversed her decision and sent the case back to her for the defence to be called. Though the defence elected this time to be silent, DJ Kaur did not hold this against them, as she ruled that prosecutors had in any case failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the charge of importing the items without a permit against managing director Wong Wee Keong and the company Kong Hoo.

They were alleged to have illegally imported 29,434kg of rosewood logs worth US$50 million from Madagascar into Singapore in March 2014.

NOT PROHIBITED FROM EXPORT THEN

Regardless of any reverberations that this case may have created about the protection of scheduled species, the fact of the matter is that the rosewood in question was not prohibited from export or trade at the time of shipment.

DISTRICT JUDGE JASVENDER KAUR

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 (AVA).

The permission from the Madagascar authorities given in 2010 to export the rosewood pre-dated the inclusion of the species on the Cites endangered list and was therefore not subject to Cites requirements, noted the judge.

The items left Madagascar in February 2014 and were seized in Singapore the following month en route to Hong Kong, the final destination, which had no import restrictions on rosewood then.

The defence legal team comprising K. Muralidharan Pillai, Paul Tan, Jonathan Lai and Choo Zheng Xi had argued that the goods were in Singapore on transit and lodged within a controlled area.

They had been unloaded onto a landing area within the Jurong Part Free Trade Zone(FTZ) and were intended to be packed into containers and trucked to PSA port for shipment out of Singapore.

The judge agreed the Jurong Port FTZ was a secured and controlled area with "procedures in place" for the temporary storage of goods.

She found that the rosewood had been kept under the control of an authorised Customs officer at the Jurong Port FTZ, among other things.

She noted that Madagascar's Minister for Environment, Ecology and Forests, Mr Ramparany Anthelme, had confirmed in January last year that the country's export authorisation papers were authentic.

The case generated keen interest abroad, both in Madagascar and among international activist groups promoting the preservation of endangered species. This included the Washington-cum-London based Environmental Investigation Agency, which lobbies for such issues across the globe.

"Regardless of any reverberations that this case may have created about the protection of scheduled species, the fact of the matter is that the rosewood in question was not prohibited from export or trade at the time of shipment," said DJ Kaur.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Tan Wen Hsien and Sarah Shi prosecuted the case while lawyer Wong Siew Hong was in court on a watching brief for Madagascar's government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Judge affirms her earlier acquittal'. Print Edition | Subscribe