SINGAPORE - In the final twist to a five-year saga involving a shipment of Madagascan rosewood logs worth US$50 million (S$67.8 million), the Court of Appeal on Monday (April 8) 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 authorities had seized in March 2014 to be released to Mr Wong and his firm "as soon as was practicable".
The Court of Appeal's decision has brought the case full circle for Mr Wong and his firm, who were initially acquitted of the charges.
The rosewood was brought into Singapore in a cargo vessel that berthed at Jurong Port on March 11, 2014.
A logistics company engaged by Mr Wong 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, acting on a tip-off, seized the entire shipment, including the unloaded logs.
But Mr Wong argued that an import permit was not required because the rosewood was only in transit in Singapore.
He and his company were acquitted in 2015 midway through the trial 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, rather than being imported, 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 the maximum $500,000 fine, while the company was sentenced to a $500,000 fine.
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.
They filed a criminal reference, asking the court to give a definitive ruling as to what constitutes a scheduled species "in transit".
The Act stipulates two conditions that have to be satisfied for a scheduled species to be considered to be in transit.
First, it has to be brought into Singapore for the "sole purpose" of taking it out of Singapore. The legal question raised was whether it is necessary to prove that the scheduled species would leave Singapore on a defined date.
Second, if the scheduled species is removed from the vessel in which it was brought into Singapore, it has to be under the "control" of an authorised officer.
The question raised was whether it must be shown that the officer knew of the existence of the scheduled species and exercised conscious oversight over it.
The court answered "no" to both questions.
Applying the law to the facts of the current case, the court said the prosecution failed to establish a case that required rebuttal from the defendants.
The court accepted the arguments of Mr Murali and Mr Choo that the "control" condition was satisfied because the rosewood was brought into the Free Trade Zone of Jurong Port, which is subject to the control of Singapore Customs.
In other words, 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, a prosecution witness, that he had made a tentative booking for 30 containers on a vessel bound for Hong Kong, which could contain a fifth of the entire consignment.