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THE Singapore High Court on Friday has reduced the State Court's sentence of City Harvest Church (CHC) founder and pastor, Kong Hee, to 3 years and 6 months, from eight years previously. The sentences of 5 other CHC leaders were also reduced.
In a split decision, the court allowed their appeals against conviction and found them guilty of a less serious charge of criminal breach of trust (CBT).
Friday's hearing was the culmination of a five-day appeal heard last September by a panel presided by three judges, namely Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn.
The six - Kong, Tan Ye Peng and senior members Chew Eng Han, John Lam Leng Hung, Serina Wee Gek Yin and Sharon Tan Shao Yuen - were found guilty in October 2015 of misusing S$24 million in CHC Building Fund monies for the Crossover Project, aimed at evangelising through singer Sun Ho's secular music. They were also convicted of another set of charges involving the misappropriation of a further S$26 million to cover up the first sum through sham bond investments and to defraud auditors with falsified accounts.
All six were handed jail terms of between 21 months and eight years in November, with Kong getting the harshest. However, they had argued that they should be acquitted. The prosecution, on the other hand, called for stiffer sentences, arguing that during the trial, the six had not shown remorse for their actions.
Reading the oral judgement on Friday, Justice Chao said he and Justice Woo thought the prosecution had failed to prove the aggravated form of CBT, which requires the accused to be a public servant, "a banker, a merchant, a factor, a broker, an attorney", or an agent, when committing the crime.
"...the crucial question is whether he may be said to be acting in the way of his business as an agent. We do not think so,'' Justice Chao said.
"While a director undoubtedly holds an important position in a company or organisation, it cannot be said that a person by becoming a director has offered his services as an agent to the community at large or that he makes his living as an agent.''
The judges agreed that Kong's overall culpability was the greatest.
"It is clear from the circumstances of this case that Kong Hee was one of the main players - if not the main player - who had set things in motion in relation to the sham investment charges where he had directed and influenced the other appellants, in particular Eng Han, to come up with plans when increased funding for the Crossover was needed."
Delivering their decision, the judges said the 6 did not benefit from any personal gains, and that they believed that their acts, especially where the sham investment charges, would advance the interests of CHC by allowing them to evangelise through the Crossover project.
The judges also noted the prosecution's attempt to make the point that a benefit had accrued to Kong's wife, Sun Ho. But they added that this point was not raised in its written submissions for the appeal and was also not raised before the Judge.
"In the circumstances, we approach the sentencing in this case as one without any element of wrongful gain or personal financial benefit, either direct or indirect.''
Kong's lawyer, Edwin Tong, said his client was disappointed with the outcome in terms of conviction and was mulling over the judgement of the appeal before deciding on the next step. Mr Tong added that Kong noted the three-judge panel recognised that what the six of them did was ultimately in the interest of the church.
Chew Eng Han, former City Harvest Church fund manager, will now face 3 years 4 months jail sentence, reduced from six years previously.
Tan Ye Peng, deputy senior pastor, gets 3 years 2 months, reduced from 5 and a half years.
Serina Wee, former CHC finance manager, gets 2 years 6 months, reduced from 5 years .
Sharon Tan, former CHC finance manager, gets 7 months, reduced from 21 months.
John Lam, former CHC finance committee member, gets 1 year 6 months, reduced from 3 years.
They have all requested for deferment before serving their jail terms.