A Hong Kong magistrate cleared a captain of a bulk carrier on charges of fraud and submitting false information to the health authorities so that his vessel could enter Hong Kong in August 2021. If convicted, Captain Ekarat Timwatthana, a Thai citizen, was facing up to two years in jail in Hong Kong.

The ruling on Tuesday followed the first hearing on March 1 where prosecutors argued that the captain knowingly provided false information to health authorities when requesting clearance for his ship, the 56,000 dwt bulker Thor Monadic owned by Thorsen Shipping of Singapore. to be granted permission to enter Hong Kong. The heath forms submitted by the captain indicated that none of the 23 crewmembers aboard the ship was ill. The captain stated that the vessel had been at sea for three weeks, long enough to meet quarantine requirements, and that the crew was not showing signs of COVID-19.

Two days after the vessel was cleared for entry, Hong Kong health authorities tested the crew for COVID-19 as the city was working to contain outbreaks of the virus. A total of 15 people aboard the Thor Monadic tested positive, including the captain, with health authorities reporting that several were displaying symptoms. The crewmembers were transferred to a hospital in the city and the Health Authority reported testing and care cost more than US$140,000. Thorsen reimburse Hong Kong for most of the expenses.

The trial in front of a magistrate court in Hong Kong came down to the captain’s intent in filing the report. The defense admitted that the captain made false statements blaming ambiguities in the language of the regulations saying it was not the intent to deceive the health authorities. During the case, it came out that the captain admitted in later discussions that crewmembers were displaying cold-like symptoms which he believed could be treated aboard the ship. 

Prosecutors argued the captain concealed that two Chinese ports, including Shanghai, had previously denied the ship entry. They contend that the captain made the false declaration seeking to get the crew into a hospital on shore for free medical care. Further, if he had declared that the crew was ill the ship would have been required to observe a 21-day quarantine.

The magistrate after reviewing the testimony said there was insufficient evidence to prove that captain intended to deceive the health authorities to gain entry into the port. Further, the magistrate did not accept the argument that the purpose was to obtain free medical care as he cited Hong Kong, he believed, would have provided the hospital care regardless when it determined the crew was ill with COVID-19.

While the captain was found not guilty on the issue of intent to defraud, the magistrate noted that the current law did not make it a punishable crime to make false representations to the health authority. In dismissing the fraud charges the magistrate cited the loophole in the law saying the authorities needed to amend the laws to make it possible to penalize individuals for submitting false information to the health department o the forms seeking entry into the port.

Source: The Maritime Executive