Commercial shipping firm APL could face criminal charges for a suspected breach of Hong Kong law that led to the seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armoured vehicles by Hong Kong Customs last November.
Hong Kong Customs yesterday said in a statement that the action taken on Nov 23 last year was "because there was a suspected breach of the Hong Kong law", the first time the Hong Kong authorities publicly gave reasons for why the vehicles were seized.
Mr Roy Tang, Hong Kong's Commissioner of Customs and Excise, said in the statement, issued in response to media inquiries, that Hong Kong Customs had completed its investigation of the suspected breach.
"The investigation might lead to criminal prosecution," he said.
The military vehicles and the associated equipment will be returned to Singapore through the carrier, he added.
No further details of when they would be released were available.
The nine Terrex vehicles that were detained by Hong Kong were on board a commercial vessel operated by APL that was in transit in the port city. They were being shipped to Singapore following a military exercise in Taiwan.
An APL spokesman told The Straits Times last night: "APL is working with the relevant authorities and various stakeholders to ship the vehicles and associated equipment that were detained in Hong Kong in November 2016, back to Singapore."
The Terrex 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.
The vehicles have been kept in a Customs indoor storage facility since Dec 6.
Yesterday, Mr Tang also said that "as an active and responsible trading partner in the global economy, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is committed to complying with international standards of strategic trade control, and Hong Kong implements a robust control system to achieve it".
He added: "Import, export and transshipment/transit of strategic commodities in breach of licensing requirement are criminal offences punishable under Hong Kong law."
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday that Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying had replied to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's earlier letter to inform him the Hong Kong authorities had completed investigations, and will be releasing the vehicles and other equipment to the Singapore Government through the carrier.
Earlier this month, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament that the Singapore Government had asserted its sovereign rights over the Singapore Armed Forces' vehicles, and requested their return. He noted that the vehicles are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers, and thus cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries.
This principle is well established under international law, and is also the law in Hong Kong, he added.
PM Lee had also written to Mr Leung, and the Hong Kong authorities had replied that investigations were ongoing and would take some time to complete, and that the Hong Kong government would handle the matter in accordance with its laws. Singapore welcomed this response, Dr Ng had said.
Dr Ng had also noted that whether APL had complied with the rules of Hong Kong port is a matter between APL and the Hong Kong authorities, which should follow the due process of Hong Kong law.
APL has shipped SAF military equipment since the 1990s, and November's incident was not the first time an APL vessel carrying Singapore-bound military equipment had transited in Hong Kong.
The Straits Times was informed earlier this month by a source with Hong Kong Customs that the shipment had been seized owing to a lack of documentation.
APL, however, had declined to comment on if it had the proper documentation required by the Hong Kong authorities.