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City Harvest trial: Final arguments made in court on Friday; sentencing expected at 3pm
[SINGAPORE] Both the defence and prosecution of the City Harvest Church (CHC) case made their final arguments on Friday, when church founder Kong Hee and five other church leaders will be sentenced at 3pm.
A queue of about 50 people formed overnight outside the State Courts - the first person had started queueing at 10.30pm on Thursday - as church members turned up in a show of support for their leaders. By 7am, there were about 66 people in the queue.
Production supervisor Sam Lew, a CHC member for the past 15 years, said he was not feeling nervous or worried about the sentencing as he had already prayed about it.
Said Mr Lew, 37: "Of course we are disappointed by the verdict but we do respect the decision of the State Courts. But (I have never wavered) in my trust in the church leaders because I believe in what God is doing in our church."
Former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55, and ex-finance committee member John Lam, 47, were the first to arrive just after 9am. They were followed closely by the other four - Kong, 51; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 43; and former church finance managers Serina Wee, 38, and Sharon Tan, 40. Kong arrived alone.
The session began at 9.45am in a packed courtroom, with lawyers for each of the six church leaders taking turns to submit their clients' final oral arguments.
Kong's lawyer Edwin Tong, who was the first to speak, said the sentence meted out to Kong must be appropriate and proportionate. The characteristics of the offender and circumstances surrounding him must be taken into account.
Mr Tong said Kong had shared with the church about the Crossover Project and its members expressed support. Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, was also chosen not without their knowledge. He added that the project was without a doubt an integral aspect of the church's evangelism.
Emphasing that all six loved the church and meant no harm to it whatsoever, Mr Tong argued that every cent which was drawn out went to the church and was supported by the church. None of the church leaders benefited from the funds used in a wrong manner.
Mr Tong concluded by claiming that Kong had demonstrated remorse. The length of the trial had taken a toll on Kong, who has aged parents and two deaf and mute siblings who rely on him for support. Kong's 10-year-old son (who was five when the case first came to court) also suffered from the attention received, and had to be withdrawn from school after being evaluated by a pyschiatrist, Mr Tong said.
Mr Tong also submitted a letter, signed by 173 of the church's current executive members, pleading the judge for leniency.
An excerpt from the letter reads:"Sir, we are the ones who have given, through tithes, offerings and building funds. We are still here. And so are Pastor Kong Hee, Pastor Tan Ye Peng, John Lam, Serina Wee and Sharon Tan. Throughout these past five years, we see them still attending church. Still helping out. Still serving. We see them stand and woship God every weekend, many times with tears streaming down their faces.
"In this whole matter, we believe they wanted to fulfill the Crossover mission and in their zeal, they overstepped certain boundaries. We sincerely ask for leniency on their sentencing. For the sake of their young children, we appeal for them to be spared jail terms."
Mr Kenneth Tan, the lawyer for Lam, said his client's involvement was not as extensive as compared to the other five leaders, and was far less culpable as he was just a volunteer who failed to inquire about the questionable use of church funds because of ingrained and misplaced trust in Kong.
Mr Andre Maniam, Serina Wee's lawyer, described his client as a follower who "started out as a girl doing accounts". Wee was not entrusted with any funds and was not on the board at the time of the criminal breach of trust charge. She was also never a pastor, Mr Maniam said. Wee's role was to provide administrative support "with limited involvement".
He added that the job in the church's accounts department was Wee's first job - she had no prior experience in the private sector. Church was Wee's life - in terms of family job, and faith - at a point in time when she was relatively young and inexperienced. There was no evidence of wrongful gain and no permanent loss in funds was intended, Mr Maniam said. Wee and the other five church leaders are not innately bad people, Mr Maniam concluded as he pleaded for leniency on behalf of his client.
In response, Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong listed four aggravating factors in the case, chief among them the fact that CHC - as a large registry entrusted with millions in members' donations - had betrayed public trust and the trust of its donors.
The prosecution also found that the offences committed were "premeditated and carefully planned", and they were subsequently covered up with numerous cunning deceptions to avoid detection.
DPP Ong went on to refute the mitigating factors put forth by the defence, stating that the good character of the six accused was not relevant in this case given the seriousness of the offences.
The argument that no personal gain was made and that the church did not suffer any losses also does not apply, he added.
On Kong's claim that was remorseful, DPP Ong said Kong had not actually apologised for his role in the offences, and a confession letter he had tendered was filled with excuses in an attempt to shirk responsibility.
All six accused were found guilty on Oct 21 of misappropriating S$24 million in church funds, funnelling them into bogus investments that funded the singing career of Ms Ho.
Later, a further S$26 million was used to cover their tracks.
In the weeks following the verdict, both the defence and prosecution have handed to the court their written submissions on sentencing.
It is believed that the six will likely be sentenced on Friday.
The prosecution has asked for stiff sentences for all of them.
The prosecution recommended a jail sentence of 11 to 12 years each for Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Wee and Chew.
For Lam, the prosecution asked for a jail sentence of eight to nine years.
The lightest sentence of five to six years was reserved for Sharon Tan.
A maximum cumulative sentence of 20 years can be imposed on the accused, in addition to a fine.
The defence has told the court repeatedly that the church suffered no loss and the six had not profited from their crimes.
The church leaders have been out on bail and barred from travelling overseas.
Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Chew and Lam have each posted bail of S$1 million. Wee and Sharon Tan have each posted a sum of S$750,000.
THE STRAITS TIMES