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City Harvest case: Apex Court dismisses bid for longer sentences for Kong Hee, former church leaders

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The Court of Appeal will be handing down its verdict on the City Harvest Church case, involving (clockwise, from top left) Kong Hee, Tan Ye Peng, Serina Wee, John Lam, Chew Eng Han and Sharon Tan.

[SINGAPORE] A five-judge Court of Appeal on Thursday dismissed a bid by prosecutors to reinstate the original convictions for City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee and five others convicted of misusing millions in church funds - ending a marathon case involving the misuse of millions of dollars of CHC funds.

The final decision means that Kong, 53; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 45; former finance manager Serina Wee, 41; and former finance committee member John Lam, 50, who are currently in jail, will continue serving out their existing and reduced jail terms of between 1½ and 3½ years.

Former finance manager Sharon Tan, 42, has completed her seven-month jail term.

Former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 57, facing a jail term of three years and four months, has been out on bail pending the court's decision.

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He was allowed his request to start serving his sentence on Feb 22, after the Chinese New Year holiday.

The decision, which hinged on the interpretation of provisions in the Penal Code governing criminal breach of trust offences, has wider implications for future misappropriation cases.

Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, in reading the decision, said that if there is any gap in the law, the shaping of the remedy should be left to Parliament

"A hard case should not be allowed to make bad law," he said, noting that the accused are still serving substantial jail terms.

The prosecution had raised the point of law to the apex court in August last year in a rarely invoked procedure known as a criminal reference.

The prosecution argued that the City Harvest six ought to have been convicted of the more aggravated charge of CBT as agents, which provides for heavier punishment, rather than plain CBT.

The six were originally charged and convicted - after a marathon 142-day trial that started in 2013 - of CBT as agents under Section 409 of the Penal Code.

They were handed jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years in November 2015.

The six appealed against their convictions and sentences while the prosecution appealed for harsher sentences.

Deciding on the appeals last April, the High Court, in a split 2-1 decision, cleared the six of CBT as agents and found them guilty of plain CBT under Section 406.

Two of the three judges on the panel ruled that Section 409 applies only to "professional agents"; and directors such as the six church leaders cannot be considered "agents" under Section 409.

Earlier on Thursday, a queue to get into the court room to hear the verdict started at 3.30am. By 7am, close to 60 people had joined the queue, despite many been told that all entry passes had been given out.

Ms Shirley Yeo, 76, a staff member in the church, joined the queue at 4.30am and was the 25th person in line.

"We are praying that this verdict will be favourable.The jail term is too harsh. God-willing, it should not be lengthened and they should be set free," she said.

She added that service in the church has been going on as usual and members have been praying for their pastors.

Housewife Shirley Tan, 65, was visibly upset when she arrived at 6.15am and could not obtain a pass to enter as the passes had all been given out.

She had gone to the State Courts at 5.30am only to realise that she was at the wrong location.

"I want to see Pastor Kong. I love him so much. City Harvest Church is my second home," she said.

THE STRAITS TIMES

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