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Company MD charged with illegally importing endangered rosewood

SINGAPORE — The managing director of a company said to have illegally imported endangered rosewood from Madagascar will have to defend the charge against him, after the High Court set aside an earlier acquittal yesterday.

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SINGAPORE — The managing director of a company said to have illegally imported endangered rosewood from Madagascar will have to defend the charge against him, after the High Court set aside an earlier acquittal yesterday.

Wong Wee Keong, 54, and his firm Kong Hoo are facing charges of importing nearly 30,000 rosewood logs into Singapore in March 2014 without a permit. The prosecution’s case against them was dismissed last October by District Judge Jasvender Kaur, who said the defence had no case to answer.

In a decision that environmentalists criticised as setting back efforts to stop trafficking of illegal timber, District Judge Kaur had ruled that the logs were in transit and found no evidence to show they had been imported to Singapore — no permit was hence needed. The seizure of the rosewood logs, worth about US$50 million (S$70.4 million), was the largest ever recorded, according to environmental news site Mongabay.

The prosecution appealed against District Judge Kaur’s decision and Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon yesterday agreed substantially with its arguments, ordering the case to be remitted to court for trial. The evidence does not point “irresistibly” to the district judge’s conclusion that the sole purpose of bringing the logs into Singapore was to ship them to Hong Kong, said Judicial Commissioner See, who will issue written grounds of his decision at a later date.

The prosecution argued that District Judge Kaur’s decision was potentially inconsistent with Singapore’s international obligations as a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and was against the legislative intent of Singapore’s Endangered Species Act to comply with CITES.

Although there were signed quotations of ocean freight charges for the logs from Singapore to Hong Kong, there were no particulars of the purported overseas buyers nor their departure date, argued Second Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, who said this cannot be regarded as a true transit case on the “mere say-so” of Wong and Kong Hoo.

Among recommendations adopted by CITES parties, are that items in transit have named consignees, and any permits or certificates clearly show the ultimate destination of shipment. While not legally binding, they provide a basic framework for how treaty provisions should be interpreted and promote consistency in the international implementation of CITES, noted amicus curiae Kelvin Koh. An amicus curiae, or friend of the court, is appointed by the court in certain cases to assist on legal issues.

The prosecution also pointed out that Wong and Kong Hoo had not informed authorities that they were shipping endangered species from Madagascar, which would be needed for authorities to exercise physical or active legal control over the goods. Mr Kwek disagreed with the defence and the judge’s conclusion that the logs are within such control simply by being within the free trade zone of ports. Such an interpretation would be against Singapore’s intent to comply with its CITES obligations and mean laxer regulations in certain areas that would allow wildlife traders to traffic endangered species to the exclusion of relevant authorities’ oversight, he said. This does not accord with Parliament’s intention to prevent Singapore from being used as a conduit for the smuggling of CITES-protected species, he said.

Wong and Kong Hoo are represented by lawyers K Muralidharan Pillai, Mr Paul Tan and Mr Choo Zheng Xi. The trial is expected to resume after March.

Illegal logging of Malagasy rosewood, prized for its texture and density, has upset the natural balance of rainforests there, according to recent reports by The Guardian.

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