Hong Kong Prosecuting Captain for Providing False COVID Declaration
Hong Kong authorities are proceeding with the prosecution of a ship captain that they charge provided false information about the COVID-19 status of his crew when requesting permission to enter the port. The captain is facing two years in jail if convicted of committing fraud by allegedly deceiving health officials.
The magistrate hearing the case on Tuesday in Hong Kong ruled that the prosecution had provided sufficient evidence of the fraud. In the second phase of the hearing, scheduled for March 15, both sides will submit their closing arguments after which the magistrate will announce the court’s verdict.
The captain, Ekarat Timwatthana, age 53 and a citizen of Thailand was in command of a 56,000 dwt bulker named Thor Monadic owned by Thorsen Shipping of Singapore. The vessel arrived in Hong Kong on August 24, 2021, during an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. The captain submitted a health statement to the authorities declaring that none of the 23 crew members aboard the vessel had fallen ill during the three-week voyage from Indonesia.
The vessel was granted a health clearance but the prosecution contends that two crewmembers were already displaying severe symptoms of COVID-19. In the midst of a surge in cases, Hong Kong identified a cluster of cases linked to the Thor Monadic. Fifteen of the 23 crewmembers, including the captain, tested positive for COVID-19. Health authorities told the magistrate that they conducted a screening of the crew and provided inpatient treatment for crewmembers that became severely ill. They said the efforts cost $140,778, although admitted that the Singapore shipping company paid most of the expenses.
Prosecutors argued that the captain was in contact with the ship’s agent in Hong Kong before arriving inquiring about the cost of COVID-19 testing. They allege that the captain knowingly was concealing the health of the crew because he wanted to get onshore medical care and not to be quarantined aboard the bulker. After the cases were identified, health authorities moved the 15 crewmembers who tested positive to a hospital while the eight remaining crewmembers were quarantined on the vessel.
The defense argues that the captain had no intention to defraud the authorities. They admitted that he applied for a “free pass” while saying that the language of the regulations was unclear regarding “pandemic-free passes.”
The captain was taken off the ship and arrested by the Hong Kong authorities in September 2021. He was released on bail but ordered to remain in the city to await trial. The case was originally scheduled to be heard in November. The charges of fraud normally are punishable by up to 14 years but because the case is being heard by the magistrate, the maximum penalty is capped at two years.