The Antwerp court of first instance in CMB (Bocimar NV), ‘The Mineral Water’: In dubio pro reo or a perfect excuse for forum shopping?

The Antwerp court of first instance (criminal section) has held last Friday, 25 June (I have copy of the judgment (in Dutch) on file) in the prosecution against CMB (an Antwerp based shipowner; specifically: Bocimar NV) and a number of individuals for the alleged illegal transport of waste, in the shape of the discarded ship the Mineral Water, destined for beaching at Chittagong, Bangladesh (the same location of relevance in Begum v Maran).

The Mineral Water was built in 1999, bought by CMB in 2007. A decision was made ‘end 2015’ (the judgment does not clarify specific date and /or circumstance of that decision) to sell  her, with a view to recycling. That sale was approved on 19 January 2016 by Bocimar Board Decision, to a cash buyer based on the British Virgin Islands, when the ship was anchored at Fangcheng, China. Actual transfer of the ship happened at Malaysia a few weeks later. The ship’s registry was changed from Antwerp to Niue after the transfer and she was beached at Chittagong in February.

The case is a criminal prosecution which of course carries with it a high burden of proof. Seeing as the ship sailed under Belgian flag, the principled application of Belgian and EU law was not as such disputed. Neither do the original owners dispute that at the time of the January 2016 decision, the ship met with the definition of waste ia per CJEU Shell. However defendants argue the EU Waste Shipments Regulation – WSR does not apply for, they argue, the Mineral Water never sailed in European waters and was not physically exported from the EU with a view to recycling (p.5 in fine).

[The court later (p.8) notes this is not quite correct: occasionally EU ports were used for (un)loading and in 2015 there was rare bunkering at Malta].

The court held for the defence. Core to the decision is Article 2, 30 31 and 32: the definitions of ‘import’, ‘export’, ‘transfer’. The prosecutor seeks support in Article 2.22: ”country of dispatch’ means any country from which a shipment of waste is planned to be initiated or is initiated’. The court however held that neither the place of decision nor the flag State is of relevance to the territorial scope of application of the WSR. (Note the contrast on that point with the Ships Recycling Regulation – SRG 1257/2013, not applicable to the facts at issue).

One imagines more on that issue can and should be said upon appeal.

The countries of dispatch, transfer and destination of the ship are all ex-EU. Importantly, at p.8 the court notes there is no indication that the owners would have gamed the system to ensure the ship lay outside EU territorial waters at the time of the decision to discard.

The case shows the importance of the flag State in the SRG (itself not free of difficulties; the IMO Hong Kong Convention should avoid gaming). Of note is also that the place of decision-making (relevant for conflict of laws: locus delicti commissi, eg under A7 Rome II as discussed in Begum v Maran) did not play a  role. The crucial element was the almost complete lack of physical contact between the ship and the EU.

One assumes the prosecution will appeal.

Geert.

Handbook of EU Waste law, 2015, Chapter 3.

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