AGC asks apex court to review key issues in City Harvest case

If ruling is in its favour, AGC will ask the court to restore original convictions of church leaders

City Harvest Church (CHC) founder and senior pastor Kong Hee (centre) leaving the Supreme Court, on April 7, 2017. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Three days after six City Harvest Church leaders had their jail terms slashed despite being found guilty of misusing millions in church funds, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) said it will take the case to Singapore's highest court.

Yesterday, it filed a rarely invoked criminal reference to seek a definitive ruling by the Court of Appeal on "questions of law of public interest" that have arisen in the case - particularly on the treatment of directors in criminal breach of trust (CBT) cases.

And if it gets a ruling in its favour on the questions of law, the AGC said it will ask the apex court to restore the original convictions of the six leaders and "make the necessary and consequential orders" on their sentences.

Last Friday, CHC founder Kong Hee, 52, and five other church leaders had their jail terms cut for their roles in the misuse of $50 million of church funds to fuel the pop music career of his wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, in a church mission.

The six were originally convicted in 2015 of committing an aggravated form of CBT "as agents", under Section 409 of the Penal Code. They were given jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years.

But in a split decision last Friday, the majority of a three-judge High Court panel ruled that the six do not fall within the meaning of "agents" under the provision and replaced the offence with plain CBT, under Section 406.

As a result, their jail terms were cut to between seven months and 3-1/2 years.

Yesterday , the AGC said in a statement: "Having carefully considered the written grounds, the prosecution is of the view that there are questions of law of public interest that have arisen out of the High Court's decision."

The questions included "whether a director or a member of the governing body of a company or organisation who is entrusted with property, or with any dominion over property, is so entrusted in the way of his business as an agent for the purposes of Section 409 of the Penal Code".

A criminal reference has been filed to refer these questions of law to the Court of Appeal, said the prosecution. It said it intends to request that the apex court reinstate the original convictions.

Mr Shashi Nathan, a partner at Withers KhattarWong, noted that the request was significant, as the prosecution is not only asking the Court of Appeal to give a ruling on questions of law, but also to reverse the High Court's decision.

Another lawyer, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, said the Court of Appeal has the "full discretion to leave the sentence as it is, increase it, decrease it".

Mr Thuraisingam, who has been involved in a criminal reference, said applications are not uncommon. But the threshold - a question of law of public interest - is high.

Last Friday, all the six accused were granted deferments of their jail terms. Lawyers not related to the case said they can apply to the High Court for a stay on their sentences pending the Court of Appeal's decision.

Kong, through his lawyer, Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, said: "I understand that the prosecution has filed a criminal reference to the Court of Appeal. I will study this carefully with my lawyers and will consider the next step to take."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline AGC asks apex court to review key issues in City Harvest case. Subscribe