After being acquitted twice, a businessman and his company were convicted by the High Court yesterday of importing more than 29,000 rosewood logs without a permit.
Singaporean 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. The seizure in March 2014 of 3,235 tonnes is more than half the global amount of rosewood seized in the last decade, said prosecutors.
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.
Wong and his firm were first acquitted in 2015 midway through the trial, when District Judge Jasvender Kaur threw out the case without calling for their defence. She said the prosecution had not made out a case for the defendants to answer. She ruled the logs were in transit, rather than being imported, as they were eventually bound for Hong Kong.
The prosecution appealed to the High Court, which sent the case back for the trial to continue. The district judge again acquitted Wong and his firm, pointing out that the prosecution had "flip-flopped" on the charge. Again, it appealed.
Yesterday, Justice See Kee Oon overturned the second set of acquittals. 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 that a species is definitely to leave Singapore at some defined date. But in this case, the departure remained tentative and was contingent on Wong and his firm finding a buyer in Hong Kong.
Justice See adjourned his decision on sentence to a later date. The prosecution, represented by Solicitor- General Kwek Mean Luck, sought at least 18 months' jail for Wong and the maximum $500,000 fine for the firm. Defence counsel Murali Pillai argued that Wong should not be jailed, saying his client had believed the transaction was "bona fide" in the light of documents he had obtained from Madagascar government representatives.
Mr Pillai said the logs were sourced before rosewood was listed under Cites. He added that as the logs will invariably be seized, the firm and Wong will suffer tremendous financial impact.
Separately, the Madagascar government, represented by Mr Wong Siew Hong, has filed a civil suit against Wong and Kong Hoo, to claim the logs which are being stored in Singapore.