Two lawyers convicted of attempting to obstruct course of justice over contraband cigarette message

Lawyer Wee Hong Shern (left) had sent another lawyer, Ong Peng Boon, a text message relating to contraband cigarettes in May 2019. - ST

SINGAPORE: Two lawyers have been found guilty of attempting to obstruct the course of justice after a trial.

Lawyer Wee Hong Shern had sent another lawyer, Ong Peng Boon, who was then his direct supervisor, a text message relating to contraband cigarettes in May 2019.

After that, Ong forwarded it to a third man, identified as Tan Hock Ann, who was arrested three months later for dealing in duty unpaid cigarettes.

In their submissions, the prosecution said that by sending the message, the two lawyers intended to alert a syndicate dealing in such cigarettes to get rid of evidence relating to its activities.

On Feb 19, District Judge Marvin Bay convicted Wee 36, and Ong, 67, of one count each of attempting to intentionally obstruct the course of justice.

A search on the Ministry of Law’s website reveals that both lawyers are directors at Ong & Co law firm.

According to court documents, at 11.52am on May 10, 2019, Wee sent what had been described as a “cryptic” message to Ong.

The message said: “I talked to Ah Boon to update. Basically: Buffalo is busted. Factory is safe for now, but he warns it’s only a matter of time before they find out where it is as they have the SD (card) of Ah Boon’s vehicle.

“They can trace buffalo and find factory eventually. So he said to clear everything from Factory ASAP. Evidence has come out that ST has been paid by China man. His Zello phone was seized, and he didn’t have time (to) delete convos. Bail opened at 55K.”

The court heard that at the time, Wee had just attended a court mention of his then client, Selva Kumar Subramaniam, who had been charged with dealing in duty unpaid cigarettes.

A minute later, Ong forwarded the message to Tan, who had earlier hired the older lawyer to represent Selva.

Ong also followed up with another message stating: “Delete after read.”

The prosecution said it is undisputed that Wee had sent the message to Ong, who then forwarded it to Tan.

Referring to it as the “buffalo message”, deputy public prosecutors (DPPs) Timotheus Koh and Etsuko Lim added: “The key question before the court is what Ong and Wee intended when they each sent (it).”

During the trial, one Toh Chin Wen, a syndicate member who was convicted of dealing in duty-unpaid cigarettes, testified that “Ah Boon” was his nickname.

In their submissions, the prosecution said Selva, another syndicate member who had also testified, told the court that “buffalo” referred to a Malaysia-registered lorry carrying duty-unpaid cigarettes.

The DPPs also said: “Tan identified the ‘factory’ as the place where the duty-unpaid cigarettes were unloaded and handled... Selva testified that the SD card of Ah Boon’s vehicle had been seized by Customs.”

However, the DPPs said it is unclear who the “he” in this portion of Wee’s message refers to.

Meanwhile, the court heard that “ST” refers to one Lim Chee Siang, who was a member of the contraband cigarette syndicate.

The DPPs said: “Selva testified that the line, ‘His Zello phone was seized, and he didn’t have time (to) delete convos’, was what he had told Wee on May 10, 2019.

“In other words, Selva’s Zello phone had been seized before he could delete the conversations.”

As for the final line of the message which mentioned “55K”, the prosecution told the court it was undisputed that this was a reference to Selva having been offered bail of $55,000.

Court documents did not disclose the outcome of the cases involving Tan, Toh, Selva and Lim.

The DPPs told District Judge Bay that there were clear links between the message and a syndicate dealing in duty unpaid cigarettes.

The prosecutors also stressed that the code words used in the “buffalo message” were the same ones used by Selva and his co-offenders when coordinating their cigarette smuggling operation.

The DPPs said that crucially, the message included a directive to “clear everything from Factory ASAP”.

They told the court: “This plainly suggests that the buffalo message was meant to be acted upon.

“There is only one explanation for Ong’s instruction to ‘delete after read’. He knew he ought not to have forwarded the buffalo message as it was a tip-off to the syndicate to dispose of evidence.”

During the trial, Ong, who is represented by lawyers Eugene Thuraisingam and Suang Wijaya, chose not to give evidence in his defence.

The DPPs said: “Ong’s case appears to be (that) Toh was the source of the buffalo message, Toh did not know that the ‘factory’ was being investigated; and (that) the call to ‘clear everything from Factory ASAP’ was thus a legitimate disassociation from criminal conduct, not a call to dispose of evidence.”

Wee is represented by lawyer Ramesh Tiwary.

The DPPs said Wee’s defence was that he did not intend to obstruct the course of justice and that he relayed the buffalo message to Ong innocently.

Wee had earlier testified that Ong had told him to find out about “buffalo and store”.

According to Wee, when he asked Ong what those terms meant, the older lawyer told him not to ask questions and to just “find it out”.

Court documents state that Wee had told the court he then sent the buffalo message to Ong without “applying his mind” because Ong was “pressuring him for an update”.

The pair will return to court in April for mitigation and sentencing. - The Straits TImes/ANN

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