Debate on import laws in Terrex trial could have ‘major implications’ for shipping firms
District Court schedules three-day preliminary hearing to clarify multiple legal issues
Hong Kong courts should clarify the extent of a shipping carrier’s responsibility when it comes to transporting strategic commodities, according to lawyers defending the shipmaster and shipping company charged over the nine Singaporean military vehicles temporarily detained in the city last year.
Their concern prompted the District Court to schedule a three-day preliminary hearing starting on December 11 as prosecutors also agreed that there was a need to clarify multiple legal issues before they take pleas and set the case for trial.
Defence counsel Joseph Tse Wah-yuen SC said the unprecedented debate on the subject will have major implications for the city’s maritime services industry when local courts lay down the correct interpretation of the Import and Export Ordinance.
His clients – mainland shipmaster Pan Xuejun, 39, and shipping company APL CO. PTE – were jointly accused of importing strategic commodities without the necessary licence after Hong Kong custom officers impounded nine Terrex armoured troop carriers last November 23, their biggest haul of strategic commodities in two decades.
Prosecutors claim they had imported nine vehicles designed or modified for military use under a sea waybill into Hong Kong without having an import licence issued by the director general of trade and industry, contrary to a stipulation under the ordinance, an offence punishable by an unlimited fine and seven years’ imprisonment.
But Tse argued on Tuesday that the stipulation did not apply to carriers like his clients.
“I hope the court will offer a correct interpretation of the ordinance,” he told judge Kwok Wai-kin. “Do they have a responsibility to ensure they have the necessary licence?”
Tse also asked the court if the Common Law defence of mistaken belief applied to the disputed stipulation and reiterated his query on the need to prosecute on the basis of a joint enterprise.
In a joint enterprise, the accomplice of the party who committed the crime is equally liable if prosecutors can prove there was an agreement between them to break the law. Tse had earlier asked the prosecution why his clients were facing joint charges instead of separate ones.
Both questions are expected to be debated at the preliminary hearing.
“Then we decide our next step in the case,” Tse said. “If in the end the court rules that [the stipulation] does not apply to carriers, we reserve the right to apply costs because we’ve requested prosecutors to amend the charge, but they have rejected us.”
The nine Terrex armoured troop carriers were intercepted while en route to Singapore from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung after a military training exercise.
The vehicles were released and returned on January 27, after Hong Kong’s customs chief Roy Tang Yun-kwong said his department did not detect any role by the Singapore government in the possible breach of the licensing requirement.