Businessman convicted of importing rosewood worth $68m takes legal issue to apex court

SINGAPORE - A Singaporean businessman who was acquitted twice before he was found guilty of importing rare Madagascan rosewood logs is back in court.

On Friday (Aug 18), Wong Wee Keong, 56, was able to file a "criminal reference" application at the Court of Appeal.

Wong 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".

The application for a hearing on two questions of law was heard by the three-judge court comprising 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$68.2 million) - were seized by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) from a ship berthed in Jurong Port. It was the "largest seizure of rosewood ever made", said a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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, and the case was 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 but Wong and his firm were acquitted.

When the prosecution appealed a second time, the judge in March (2017) said 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.

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