Ruling may have serious implications: Shanmugam

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) is considering if it can take further steps in the City Harvest Church case, given that the decision to cut the jail terms of the six convicted could have serious implications for corruption cases, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

"We will have to consider as a matter of policy what other steps to take because we cannot relax our stand on that," he said, referring to Singapore's zero-tolerance towards corruption.

A day earlier, all six church leaders in the largest case of misuse of charitable funds in Singapore's history had their sentences slashed by a three-judge panel in the High Court, despite the prosecution's appeal for longer jail terms.

Their original jail terms, ranging from 21 months to eight years, were cut, in some cases by over half. The 52-year-old church founder Kong Hee, for instance, had his eight-year term cut to 31/2 years, while former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 56, had his six years reduced to three years and four months.

A critical reason for the High Court's decision was the ruling that directors are not agents under the more serious Section 409 of the Penal Code dealing with criminal breach of trust. The bench majority replaced the offence with basic criminal breach of trust, resulting in lighter sentences.

Referring to this legal point, Mr Shanmugam said it has serious implications for other cases, including corruption cases in which company directors are taking bribes.

But he sounded a note of caution, saying people can disagree with the court but they should be careful about "casting improper ulterior motives" on the judgments.

"The reasoning is there, they set it out, we agree, disagree, and from a Government point of view, if we disagree, then we always consider what we do. If necessary, we legislate through Parliament," he added.

In November 2015, the church leaders were found guilty of channelling $24 million in church funds into sham bonds in music production company Xtron and glass- maker Firna, then using another $26 million to cover up the misdeed.

The church had said the money was used to fund the singing career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, as part of what it described as a church mission to evangelise through her music.

All six appealed against their convictions and sentences, while the AGC appealed against the sentences for being too low. Mr Shanmugam said the Government agreed with the AGC's push for longer jail terms.

Referring to the four judges - three High Court judges and one State Court judge - who heard the case in total, Mr Shanmugam said two judges had thought "either the sentences should be as they are or higher". Justice Chan Seng Onn, in differing from Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li, had said in his dissenting judgment that there were elements of benefit to Kong and his wife, and also permanent financial loss to the church.

The appeal judgment had commented on how the prosecution had not focused on whether any third parties had reaped gains from the church leaders' actions, even though this may have been suggested in the charges.

This point was not raised in the prosecution's written submissions for the appeal or at the trial.

As a result, the court had approached the sentencing in this case "as one without any element of wrongful gain or personal financial benefit, either direct or indirect", said the oral judgment.

Mr Shanmugam said he has "noted the court's comments on the way the matter was handled by the prosecution", and had asked Attorney-General Lucien Wong and his deputies to look into the matter.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan told The Sunday Times the AGC could go to the Court of Appeal "to clarify section 409 once and for all". This must be done within a month of the High Court's decision.

Lawyer Lau Kah Hee said if the apex court takes a different view on the legal question, it could then decide on suitable sentences or send the case back for resentencing.

Additional reporting by Melody Zaccheus

This article was first published on April 9, 2017.
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