In the final twist to a five-year saga involving Madagascan rosewood logs worth US$50 million (S$67.8 million), the Court of Appeal yesterday quashed the convictions of a Singaporean businessman and his trading firm for importing the logs without a permit.
The decision by a five-judge court, set out in a 79-page written judgment, hinged on the interpretation of the term "transit" in the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, which regulates the trade of specified species of animals and plants, including rosewood.
The court ruled that the rosewood brought into Singapore by Mr Wong Wee Keong, 58, and his company Kong Hoo was in transit, and was not imported. Thus, the charges against Mr Wong and his firm for importing the logs without a permit could not stand.
The court also ordered the 29,434 logs that the authorities had seized in March 2014 to be released to Mr Wong and his firm "as soon as was practicable".
The decision has brought the case full circle for Mr Wong and his firm, who were initially acquitted.
The rosewood was brought into Singapore in a vessel that berthed at Jurong Port on March 11, 2014. A logistics company engaged to repack the logs into containers for transshipment then moved some of the logs to a yard within the port.
Officers from the then Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore seized the entire shipment. Mr Wong argued an import permit was not required because the rosewood was only in transit in Singapore.
He and his company were acquitted in 2015 when District Judge Jasvender Kaur dismissed the prosecution's case without calling for the defendants to answer to the charges. She ruled that the rosewood was in transit as the logs were bound for Hong Kong.
The prosecution appealed to the High Court, and Justice See Kee Oon sent the case back for the trial to continue.
The district judge again acquitted Mr Wong and his firm. Again, the prosecution appealed.
The second set of acquittals was overturned by Justice See in March 2017. He ruled that, for a shipment to be considered in transit, it was necessary to prove that it would leave Singapore on a defined date.
Mr Wong was sentenced to three months' jail and fined the maximum $500,000, while the company was fined $500,000.
The defendants, represented by Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Choo Zheng Xi, then took the case to the Court of Appeal, raising questions of law as to what constitutes a scheduled species "in transit". The Act stipulates two conditions have to be satisfied for a scheduled species to be considered in transit.
First, it has to be brought into Singapore for the "sole purpose" of taking it out of Singapore. The question raised was whether it is necessary to prove that the goods would leave Singapore on a defined date.
Second, if the goods are removed from the vessel in which they were brought into Singapore, they have to be under the "control" of an authorised officer. The question was whether it must be shown the officer knew of the existence of the scheduled species and exercised conscious oversight over it.
The court answered "no" to both questions.
In the current case, the court said the prosecution failed to establish a case that required rebuttal. The court accepted that the "control" condition was satisfied because the rosewood was under the physical control of Singapore Customs.
As for the "sole purpose" condition, the court cited the evidence from the managing director of the logistics company, indicating the rosewood was to be shipped to Hong Kong.