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Managing director jailed, fined for illegally importing rosewood

SINGAPORE — A managing director was sentenced on Friday (Apr 28) to three months’ jail and fined S$500,000 for illegally importing more than 29,000 pieces of rosewood logs from Madagascar, reportedly the largest-ever seizure of illegally-imported rosewood worldwide. Wong Wee Keong’s firm Kong Hoo was also fined S$500,000 and the logs, estimated to be worth up to US$50 million (about S$69.8 million), were ordered to be forfeited.

Managing director jailed, fined for illegally importing rosewood

Wong Wee Keong, managing director of Kong Hoo, leaving the Supreme Court. Photo: Robin Choo/TODAY

SINGAPORE — A managing director was sentenced on Friday (Apr 28) to three months’ jail and fined S$500,000 for illegally importing more than 29,000 pieces of rosewood logs from Madagascar, reportedly the largest-ever seizure of illegally-imported rosewood worldwide. Wong Wee Keong’s firm Kong Hoo was also fined S$500,000 and the logs, estimated to be worth up to US$50 million (about S$69.8 million), were ordered to be forfeited.

But in a case that has seen several twists and turns, Wong and his company — acquitted twice before they were found guilty last month — have filed a criminal reference to the Court of Appeal on what would be the correct legal test for whether a shipment is considered an import or in transit.

Rosewood is a controlled species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), to which Singapore is a signatory.

The logs were seized in March 2014. But Wong, 54, and his firm were acquitted in October 2015 when the District Judge Jasvender Kaur found that there was no evidence to show that the logs were imported here and ruled that the defence had no case to answer.

The district judge however, acquitted Wong and his firm again. Prosecutors appealed against this decision and Justice See convicted them last month, noting that while Wong wanted to export the logs to Hong Kong, he had not secured a buyer at the time.

In his oral judgement delivered on Friday, Justice See said that while he agreed with the prosecution that a fine should be imposed for each illegally-imported specimen to deter people from the potentially-lucrative illegal trade in endangered species, this case did not have the usual features of transnational organised wildlife smuggling, such as deliberate concealment and bogus documentation, or any direct evidence of illicit dealings or profiteering to be made on the black market.

Prosecutors had earlier sought for a jail term of at least 18 months for Wong and a maximum fine of S$500,000 against the firm. While the maximum fine was meted out, the judge said: “Fines can however only achieve so much to advance the aims of general and specific deterrence and the maximum prescribed fines pale alongside the enormous potential gains in the present case”. He added: “The sentence must thus make it palpably not worth the risk for one to take when weighed against the potential gains.”

In arriving at the three-month custodial sentence for Wong, Justice See said the primary aggravating factor in this case was the vast quantity of rosewood imported. The commercial value of the rosewood was very high by any measure, yet the custodial sentence has to be “carefully calibrated to the degree of individual culpability as well as the harm involved”, he added.

While the rosewood was illegally imported, the evidence did not go so far as to show that it had been illegally sourced and “smuggled” in the ordinary sense, said the judge. The punitive consequences of the forfeiture order should also be taken into account in determining the totality of the punishment, he said. “The combined effect of an appropriately-calibrated imprisonment term, heavy fines and forfeiture are, in my view, necessary and adequate to drive home the message that the offences are serious, even though they may appear to be ‘straightforward’ regulatory breaches,” the judge said.

 

 

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