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Singaporean director jailed for foiling probe into his firm's deals with North Korea

A director who foiled Singapore’s authorities attempts to investigate his oil trading and bunkering firm's suspected dealings with North Korea was jailed.
Manfred Low Cheng Jing foiled investigations into an alleged illegal gasoil transaction between his company's vessel and a North Korean vessel. (PHOTO: Japan's Ministry of Defense)

SINGAPORE — A director who foiled Singapore’s authorities attempts to investigate his oil trading and bunkering firm's suspected dealings with North Korea was jailed for 15 weeks on Tuesday (7 June).

Manfred Low Cheng Jing, 31, was also the shareholder of Singapore-incorporated company Yuk Tung Energy, which was reported to have transferred gasoil to the hermit kingdom in 2018, in breach of United Nations (UN) sanctions.

The Singaporean pleaded guilty to one count of intentionally obstructing the course of justice by disposing a computer containing details of Yuk Tung Energy’s transactions.

As a member state to the UN, Singapore is obliged to implement the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) sanctions against North Korea in response to the latter’s nuclear program. To this effect, Singapore enacted the United Nations Act 2001 and the United Nations (Sanctions – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Regulations 2010.

The UNSC’s resolutions prohibit the facilitation or engagement of ship-to-ship transfers of all refined petroleum products to or from North Korea’s vessels.

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Media reports in early 2018 highlighted the alleged transfer of gasoil around 20 January 2018 between Yuk Tung Energy’s vessel, named MT Yuk Tung, and a North Korean vessel, Rye Song Gang 1, in the East China Sea.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also published a press release with photographs of the alleged incident on 24 January 2018.

Low learned about the news around the same time. Thinking that the police would investigate his firm’s activities, between January and February 2018, Low threw an Apple iMac computer that he used for its operations at an unknown dumpster in Singapore. He knew the computer contained information relevant to investigations.

“The accused admitted to intentionally disposing of the iMac computer at a dumpster as he was afraid that the police would find potentially incriminating evidence in the iMac computer because he knew that YTE’s business operations were shady. He did not want the police to be able to retrieve incriminating evidence from the iMac computer,” said prosecutors handling the case.

Singapore’s Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) received information about the alleged illicit supply of gasoil to North Korea and began investigating Yuk Tung Energy and its officers, including registered owner Eric Tang Kok Wah, and another director and shareholder Benito Aloria Yap, on 26 January 2018.

Yap is at large while Yuk Tung Energy and Tang have not been prosecuted.

Investigations by Singapore authorities thwarted

According to court documents, Yap dealt with transactions while Low acknowledged transactions, printed out and tallied the firm’s invoices. Low learned the ropes of the business from Yap, who was the key decision-maker of the firm.

After the company learned about the media reports, Tang, Yap, Low and other officers of the company met in Johor Bahru to discuss how to respond.

Yap went to the firm’s office to remove all physical documents related to the company’s dealings. He told a staff member to move a computer related to the firm’s operations. He also asked an employee to assist Low in removing the iMac computer from the office. The iMac was eventually sent to Low’s residence before he threw it away.

On 2 February 2018, CAD raided Yuk Tung Energy’s office but did not find the two computers.

On 13 February 2018, the Singapore government received a request from the UN Panel of Experts under the UNSC Committee for information on the transactions related to MT Yuk Tung.

The panel sought an explanation as to why there was a ship-to-ship transfer between MT Yuk Tung and Rye Song Gang 1. It also requested for the type and amount of petroleum allegedly transferred to the North Korean vessel, and copies of documents related to the transfer.

CAD managed to obtain information and documents pertaining to Yuk Tung’s operations. However, Low’s disposal of the iMac prevented CAD from fully investigating the alleged sanction violations.

Low also lied in his statement to CAD that his phone and laptop were destroyed in January 2018 after a car ran over a bag containing the devices.

Low later admitted to disposing his phone – the charge relating to this offence was taken into consideration for his sentencing.

On 30 March 2018, MT Yuk Tung and Yuk Tung Energy were added to the UN sanctions list.

Prosecution sought three to five months' jail

Deputy Public Prosecutors Regina Lim, Koh Mun Keong, and Samuel Chew sought three to five months’ jail for Low, citing how he had frustrated CAD’s ability to fully investigate the illegal supply of gasoil to North Korea.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Impact Statement makes clear that the accused’s obstruction of the course of justice have subjected Singapore to international scrutiny and criticism, and raised questions from Singapore’s international partners about her commitment to upholding her international obligations under the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. This negatively impacted Singapore’s economic reputation and competitiveness, and increased risk for Singapore’s financial and economic sectors,” said the prosecution.

They noted that a breach of the UN sanctions carried a maximum jail term of 10 years and a fine of up to $500,000.

Diana Ngiam, Low's lawyer, argued for around three months' jail for her client, whom she said was not involved in carrying out Yap's instructions to the employees.

Low only knew the removal of his iMac computer when a member of staff transported the computer to Low’s residence," she said.

In a moment of panic, Low "decided foolishly" to throw the computer away. Even though Low learned about the media reports, he had not yet known that CAD was investigating the matter, the lawyer said. Low also never intended for the firm to breach UN sanctions, she added.

For obstructing the course of justice, Low could have been jailed up to seven years, fined, or both.

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