HONG KONG - A three-day preliminary hearing starting on Dec 11 has been set for the case against shipping firm APL and its container ship captain over the transportation of nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armoured vehicles.
This comes after lawyers defending APL and Pan Xuejun on Tuesday (July 25) expressed concerns over the extent of a shipping firm's responsibility when it comes to transporting strategic commodities, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The lawyers had asked the District Court in Hong Kong to clarify the matter. Prosecutors also agreed that there was a need to make clear several legal issues before they take pleas and set the case for trial, SCMP reported.
APL and Pan have both been charged with transporting the nine Terrex infantry carriers to Hong Kong without a licence.
Pan, 39, a Chinese national, was the captain of an APL vessel which was transporting the nine vehicles back to Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan last year (2016).
The ship stopped in Hong Kong on Nov 23 without an import licence issued by the city's director-general of trade and industry. This led Customs officials to seize the Terrex vehicles.
According to Hong Kong's Customs authorities, all vessels must fully declare all cargo on board before docking at its port.
Generally, cargo in transit does not require an "import or export licence". But such a licence is required for certain types of strategic commodities.
The nine vehicles are designed and made in Singapore, and were introduced in 2009. The 24-tonne eight-wheelers can carry 13 soldiers each, travel at a top speed of 105kmh and are at home in water.
Investigations by Hong Kong authorities found no information that pointed to the possiblity of the Singapore Government being involved in the breach of the licensing conditions.
The vehicles were later returned to the Republic and arrived in Singapore on Jan 30 this year.
On Tuesday, the District Court was asked to offer a correct interpretation on the Import and Export Ordinance.
Defence counsel Joseph Tse argued that the legal issues related to the case must be clarified as debate on the subject will have major implications for Hong Kong's maritime services industry, SCMP reported.
Mr Tse argued that the stipulation under the ordinance did not apply to carriers such as his clients.
As the vehicles on the vessel were in transit in Hong Kong, APL and Pan should not be responsible for ensuring an import or export licence, even if the items were considered strategic commodities, Lianhe Zaobao reported on Tuesday, quoting the defence lawyers.
"I hope the court will offer a correct interpretation of the ordinance," Mr Tse told Judge Kwok Wai Kin, according to SCMP. "Do they have a responsibility to ensure they have the necessary licence?"
If the stipulation under the ordinance did apply to APL and Pan, the defence would then have to consider if the Common Law defence of mistaken belief can be quoted, according to Lianhe Zaobao.
Mr Tse also reiterated his question on the need to prosecute on the basis of a joint enterprise, SCMP reported. He had earlier asked the prosecution why his clients were facing joint charges instead of separate ones.
In a joint charge, both parties would be equally liable for the alleged offence. The offence carries an unlimited fine and up to seven years' jail.