The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a ruling acquitting a Taiwanese ship owner and two other businessmen, along with three crew members, of charges related to selling oil to North Korea in open waters in 2018 in violation of UN sanctions. The ruling was final.
Taichung prosecutors in September 2019 charged the owner of the oil tanker Polaris and chairman of Rise Loyal Corp Tsai Tsung-lin (蔡宗霖), Wintak Petrochemical Group’s chairman, surnamed Chiu (邱), Pasis Trading Co’s chairman, surnamed Hsu (徐), and three foreign crew members of the Polaris with forging documents, presenting fraudulent invoices, falsifying customs declarations and contravening the Business Entity Accounting Act (商業會計法).
The prosecutors accused Tsai of dealing with Taiwanese petrochemical companies to transport fuel oil from the Port of Taichung to a location in the East China Sea on the Polaris.
The fuel was then transferred to another vessel, they said, adding that the alleged illicit transfers occurred from January to November 2018.
The transfers involved Chinese and North Korean-registered ships, and the deals were made mainly through a Chinese businessman named Xie Jiaqing (謝加慶), prosecutors said, calling the activities “illegal oil smuggling.”
The activities were being monitored by international agencies, as the UN had imposed an economic embargo against North Korea.
It was alleged that fuel oil was transferred from the Polaris to the North Korean-flagged Myong Ryu 1 in the East China Sea on May 24, 2018.
After Taiwan’s judiciary launched an investigation, prosecutors at the time said Tsai allegedly colluded with Xie to make 21 ship-to-ship transfers in 2018 for total of 92,000 tonnes of fuel oil worth an estimated NT$1.7 billion (US$60.6 million at the current exchange rate).
During court hearings, Tsai said he formed a commercial partnership with Chiu’s and Hsu’s firms to operate a “marine fuel depot” for ship-to-ship oil transfers, which he said was a “legal business transaction” on the open seas that was not prohibited by Taiwanese law.
The accused denied any wrongdoing, saying the vessel pictured in satellite imagery presented in court as evidence did not look like the Polaris, adding that it was a case of mistaken identity.
The Taichung District Court found the defendants not guilty and a second ruling by the High Court last year also acquitted them.
Prosecutors appealed the ruling, which led to the Supreme Court’s final verdict yesterday.
The ship’s Burmese captain Aung Nyein, Chinese chief steward Huang Jianwei (黃建威) and two Indonesian crew members were last year allowed to return home after having been stranded on the ship for nearly two years, due to travel restrictions placed on them while litigation was under way.
Their plight caused an outcry from humanitarian groups after power to the ship was cut and the crew’s provisions ran out. Civic groups provided aid to the crew until their release.
After learning of yesterday’s verdict, Tsai said the lawsuit and having to fire-sale the ship caused his company to incur losses of about NT$200 million.
“However, I am glad that it is finally over, and that the court has restored justice for us. I can be proud to walk in public, to say that I have been proven an innocent man,” he said.
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