Wildlife campaigners hail deterrent sentence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 1999, 12:00am

A businesswoman caught selling shawls made from rare antelopes was given a three-month suspended jail term and $300,000 fine yesterday in what wildlife campaigners said was a triumph for animal protection.

Bharati Ashok Assomull, 50, was told her punishment for dealing in shahtoosh shawls worth more than $500,000 had to send a message to the world community.

'Hong Kong has an international obligation - it's a signatory to the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species,' Magistrate David John Dufton said in North Kowloon Court. 'And if one is to seriously carry out this obligation, a deterrent sentence has to be imposed so traders know this kind of conduct will not be accepted.' Assomull denied possessing a highly endangered species for sale as 130 shahtoosh shawls in the Furama Hotel in December 1997. Three or four endangered Tibetan antelopes are killed to make one shawl.

Mr Dufton said she was selling the shawls for $579,000 - double what she paid for them in New Delhi.

While she had claimed not to know the shawls were shahtoosh, the magistrate said she should have tried to find out.

'You failed by a long way; you simply took no steps to inquire.' Judy Mills, director of Traffic East Asia which monitors trade in wild animals, said the sentence was ammunition for globally fighting the trade in endangered species.

'The whole world is watching Hong Kong to see how it deals with this, and we will see similar prosecutions and sentences follow this around the world,' she said outside court.

'The magistrate has really understood the fact that this is a crime and that it must stop.' Cheung Chi-sun, endangered species protection officer with the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, said similar cases abroad were waiting to go to court, and yesterday's result set a precedent.

'We're happy with the result because this indicates the court is taking a serious view of such offences,' he said.

Assomull's jail term was suspended for 12 months in light of her clear record and stress she had suffered in the long time it had taken for the case to reach court.