Vanuatu Customs Department To Sell $2 Million Worth Of Seized Sandalwood

6 containers of lumber originating in New Caledonia to be reexported

By Thompson Marango

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, Feb. 18, 2017) – Six containers of imported New Caledonian sandalwood valued at Vt208 million [US$2 million] have been placed on tender by the Department of Customs and Inland Revenue as the importer seeks an explanation for the seizure.

The six containers of sandalwood that arrived in Vanuatu in May 2016 belongs to New Caledonian company, Santal D’Zyl.

The company is owned by Sylvie Qenegeie who works with the Lifou Association of Sandalwood. In Vanuatu Qenegeie is Trading as Belair Farm to import sandalwood to Vanuatu to be re-exported.

On September 29, 2016, the Magistrate Court issued a search warrant for the containers for investigation due to allegation of "aiding to lodging customs declaration procedures inappropriately as a way to defraud the revenue of Customs".

The warrant also gave the Customs Department the right to seize the containers and its contents from a property where they were formerly stored and transported to where they are now stored at VMF Camp.

After the tender notices were published in the media and the Customs Department Website, Santal’ D’Zyl owner, Ms Qenegeie is seeking the court's assistance to prevent the sale of the 6 containers of sandalwood.

The importing company and exporter are resorting legal avenues claiming they have not been given any appropriate explanations as to why a search warrant was issued and why the containers were seized.

Daily Post initially contacted the Customs Department earlier this year seeking information regarding the seizure without any feedback for reasons that the issue was still under investigation.

After Qenegeie decided to talk to the media about the issue, Daily Post contacted the Director of Customs again, Benjamin Malas regarding the tender but he informed that the Department was still investigating the issue and won’t comment at that stage.

Director Malas labeled the issue as "sensitive and serious" but assures that he will make all information available to the media once the issue is properly settled in Court.

Locally owned company, Belair Farm was given the approval by the Department of Biosecurity to import the 68 tonnes of sandalwood from New Caledonian sandalwood exporter, SantalD'Zyl.

According to Qenegeie, initially the containers were given the status of "perishable products", coded as IM9 by Customs Department.

Upon arrival the Santal D'Zyl owner consulted with Customs Officer, Oliver Willie and Director resulting in the modification of the containers from status IM9 to "products of transit for a period of 6 months", Code IM5. The modification was allegedly carried out by agency Gauchet with approval from the Department of Customs, according to the importer.

“We had no direct involvement in the completion of the IM5 form,” said Qenegeie.

“Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to us, the value on the IM5 differed from that on the IM9 after the modification.

“The value of the sandalwood that was entered on the IM9 category was changed when the product was modified to IM5."

When modified to IM5 category, the value was tremendously reduced to at least 90% less than the initial value.

According to Qenegeie, between the time the sandalwood arrived in Vanuatu and the search warrant of 29 September, the sandalwood was sold on three different occasions.

“This was done with the full understanding and cooperation of the Department of Customs.

"For these transactions all requested taxes and duties were paid.”

The Santal D'Zyl owner told Daily Post that while they are were still trying to sort out the issue with Customs, the Department advertised the confiscated products inviting tender from interested buyers.

To prevent the sale of the sandalwood by Customs, she is filing a claim for judicial review claiming the seizure notice served by Customs was not served as required by the Customs Act 2013 Section 182.

Qenegeie is also seeking a declaration from the court that the “seizure notice” was not compliant with the Customs Act 2013 particularly Section 182.

She also is seeking from the court a mandatory order requiring the release to the claimant of that sandalwood purportedly seized under the subject seizure notice.

She also is seeking the court to prevent the Customs Department from acting upon and relying upon the seizure notice.

Meanwhile, Daily Post has received information that the Customs Officer, Willie Oliver who deals with the issue has been disciplined over allegation of negligent and carelessness while discharging his duties.

Mr Oliver was also accused of conspiring with the importer to defraud revenue from Customs in relation to the goods.

Oliver is understood to have resumed work after responding and explaining the allegations leveled against him.

Vanuatu Daily Post
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