‘Rosewood importer failed to prove there was foreign buyer’

KELLY NG Today Online 10 May 16;

SINGAPORE — That Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) permits were not needed for specimens in transit was a concern to drafters of the convention, who noted it could be abused, thus undermining the goal of conservation.

While resolutions passed later to address this are not legally binding in Singapore, they present “relevant considerations”, said a High Court judge in written grounds detailing his decision to set aside the acquittal of a managing director and his firm for illegally importing nearly 30,000 rosewood logs from Madagascar.

Last October, District Judge Jasvendar Kaur had found that there was no evidence to show that the logs were imported here, and ruled that the defence had no case to answer — a decision that environmentalists had criticised as setting back efforts to stop trafficking of illegal timber.

But in February, Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon had aside the acquittal, stating that evidence before the courts failed to point “irresistibly” to the district judge’s conclusion that logs were only in transit here, and Wong Wee Keong and his firm Kong Hoo had to defend the charges against them.

Rosewood is a controlled species under CITES, to which the Republic is a signatory. Under Singapore’s Endangered (Import and Export) Species Act, a shipment is considered to be in transit and not imported if it is “brought into Singapore solely for the purpose of taking it out of Singapore” and is kept under the control of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority director-general or an authorised officer.

In his written grounds released last Thursday, Judicial Commissioner See noted that there was no evidence that there was a foreign buyer in Hong Kong, and Wong had refused to disclose any information on this.

As such, it would appear that Wong and his firm had brought the rosewood — worth US$50 million (S$68.5 million) — into Singapore “in the hope that it might be shipped to Hong Kong if a suitable Hong Kong buyer could be found”. Together with the fact that Kong Hoo was listed as the consignee of the shipment, this went against the district judge’s assessment that the rosewood was brought to Singapore for the sole purpose of transhipment and not for import, Judicial Commissioner See said.

The respondents might well be able to explain these matters away, but “they were matters which called for an explanation”, he added.

Moreover, a meeting of CITES member states in 1994 had drawn attention to the concern that an article under CITES allowing the transit of specimens without the need to obtain CITES permits could be abused, noted Judicial Commissioner See.

“These present relevant considerations to take into account, in determining whether the sole purpose condition has been satisfied,” he noted.

Judicial Commissioner See also disagreed with the district judge’s finding that the rosewood logs, when offloaded, were within the Jurong Port Free Trade Zone under the “control” of an authorised officer. Judicial Commissioner See found that “control” under the Act does not refer to “mere jurisdictional control”, but an “active” form of control, which was not satisfied in this case.

Such “control” was deemed necessary under CITES to prevent potential abuses, said Judicial Commissioner See.

For instance, some traders might keep scheduled species within a transit country while searching for buyer in another country. There was also the risk that would-be smugglers might seek to circumvent CITES protections by disposing of their scheduled species en route.

But in this case, there was no evidence that any authorised officer was aware that the logs were being unloaded, let alone exercise any control over the process, said Judicial Commissioner See.

“The mere fact that the scheduled species were placed in a locality over which an authorised officer exercise passive dominion or jurisdiction cannot, without more, constitute the necessary control,” he ruled.

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