SINGAPORE - After being acquitted twice, a businessman and his company were convicted by the High Court on Thursday (March 30) for importing more than 29,000 endangered rosewood logs without a permit.
In a case that has seen many twists and turns, Wong Wee Keong, 56, and his firm Kong Hoo, were found guilty of importing the logs, worth US$50 million (S$70 million), from Madagascar in March 2014.
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).
Wong and his firm were first acquitted in 2015 midway through trial, when a district judge threw out the case without calling for their defence.
District Judge Jasvender Kaur had ruled that the prosecution did not made out a case for the defendants to answer as the logs were in transit.
The prosecution appealed to the High Court, which set aside the acquittal and sent the case back for the trial to continue, for the defence to answer to the case. Wong remained silent and did not testify.
But the district judge again acquitted Wong and his firm, pointing out that the prosecution had "flip-flopped" on the charge.
Again, the prosecution appealed.
On Thursday, Justice See overturned the second acquittal. He noted that while Wong wanted to export the logs to Hong Kong, he had not secured a buyer at the time.
He said that in such a case where export is "contingent" on whether a buyer is found, the rosewood cannot be considered to be lawfully imported.
Justice See adjourned his decision on sentence to a later date.
The prosecution, represented by Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, sought 18 months' jail for Wong and a $500,000 fine for the firm.
Defence counsel Murali Pillai argued that Wong should not be jailed.
He argued that this was not a case of a "surreptitious operation" and that his client had believed the transaction was "bona fide" in the light of documents he had obtained from Madagascar government representatives.
Mr Pillai also noted that the logs were sourced before rosewood came under Cites.
Separately, the Madagascar government, represented by Mr Wong Siew Hong, has filed a civil suit against Wong and Kong Hoo, to claim the logs.