Hong Kong customs is set to press charges against the shipping company and the captain of the container ship which transported nine Singapore military vehicles into the city from Taiwan in November without a required licence.
Shipping company APL is expected to be issued with a summons while the captain of the container ship is to be charged with importing strategic commodities without a required licence, according to a government source with knowledge of the case.
A spokesman for the customs department said: "After a thorough investigation, the department has sufficient evidence to prove a case in breach of the strategic trade control system. Prosecution of the offending parties [shipping agent and master of the vessel] has been instigated today."
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A spokesman for the shipping company said: "APL has not received any official summons and will not be in a position to comment further."
The move to bring charges came after the Customs and Excise Department sought legal advice from the Department of Justice.
The nine Terrex armoured troop carriers were seized by customs officerson November 23 last year. The cargo was bound for Singapore from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung.
The vehicles, which were not "specifically" declared in the cargo manifest, had been used in a military exercise in Taiwan. It was Hong Kong's biggest seizure of "strategic commodities" in two decades.
The seizure was seen as a warning from Beijing over military ties between Singapore and the island, which China considers a renegade province.
Beijing said it hoped Singapore had "learned a lesson" and urged it to respect the one-China policy.
In January, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Lion City's military had learned a lesson from the saga.
The legal action against the shipping company and the captain came after the customs department completed a probe into the incident in January and found the Singapore government could not be held responsible as it was only the consignee of the military vehicles.
Days before the vehicles were released and shipped back to the Lion City on January 27, Hong Kong's customs chief, Roy Tang Yun-kwong, said that in the investigation process, the department did not detect any role by the Singapore government in the possible breach of the licensing requirement.
Under Hong Kong's Import and Export Ordinance, a licence is required for the import, export, re-export or transshipment of strategic commodities. The maximum penalty for failing to obtain a licence is an unlimited fine and seven years' imprisonment.
Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, associate professor of government and international studies at Baptist University, said the prosecution left the impression that the shipping company and the captain had been made "scapegoats" in the diplomatic row between China and Singapore.
"The Hong Kong government has its right to take legal action, but when the diplomatic row has been cordially solved, the incident should have ended in another way," Chan said.
The governments could have issued a reminder to the shipping industry about the licence requirement, instead of prosecuting, he added.
Ja Ian Chong, associate professor in politics from the National University of Singapore, said he felt the prosecution "follow[ed] Hong Kong law, and at least on the face to it, underscore[d] a sense of rule of law."
"It lends the incident an air of being a technical issue that permits a side-stepping of any diplomatic differences," he said. "I do not think individuals should be scapegoats for a diplomatic incident, although I appreciate that the sacrificing of individuals is an unfortunate possibility when it comes to politics."