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Chew Eng Han’s second bid to avoid jail 'abuse of court process', say judges

Ex-City Harvest Church fund manager Chew Eng Han arriving at the High Court on 15 September 2016 for the first day of the CHC appeal hearing. (PHOTO: Sharlene Sankaran/Yahoo News Singapore)
Ex-City Harvest Church fund manager Chew Eng Han arriving at the High Court on 15 September 2016 for the first day of the CHC appeal hearing. (PHOTO: Sharlene Sankaran/Yahoo News Singapore)

Former City Harvest Church (CHC) fund manager Chew Eng Han’s second bid to challenge his criminal breach of trust (CBT) conviction was rejected again by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday (6 September).

In its judgement, the Court of Appeal called Chew’s second bid an “abuse of court process” which was “devoid of merit”.

Chew, 57, was among six CHC members who were found guilty in 2015 of misappropriating some $50 million in church funds to promote the career of singer Sun Ho, wife of church founder Kong Hee, after a protracted trial.

Chew and the five other CHC leaders, Kong, 52, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44, former finance manager Serina Wee, 40, former finance committee member John Lam, 49, and former finance manager Sharon Tan, 41, were each given sentences of between seven months and three and a half years after their jail sentences were slashed in April this year.

The six were found guilty of a lesser charge of CBT during an appeal hearing. Chew, who was sentenced to three years and four months jail, is the only one of the six who has yet to begin his jail term. His sentence was stayed so that he could file a criminal reference to raise questions of law.

Questions of law

Chew’s first application to refer questions of the law to the Apex Court in July was thrown out by a three-judge panel – comprising Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakesh, and Justice Quentin Loh – after the judges ruled that Chew’s appeal did not meet the threshold to be considered questions of law of public interest.

On 1 August, Chew filed another criminal motion to argue along the same lines, which was heard by the same three judges. He represented himself in both applications.

In court on Wednesday, Chew argued that his conviction amounted to a violation of his constitutional rights as it was based on an unprecedented declaration of law. He said that his case was “unique” as it was the first time the court had convicted someone of CBT for misusing funds for the purpose and benefit of the owner, instead of for his own personal gain.

He added that his constitutional rights had been violated under article 11 of the Singapore Constitution, which states that “no person shall be punished for an act… which was not punishable by law when it was done”.

Chew said that he was not given “fair notice that the act [he] did amounted to misappropriation” as he had a “legitimate expectation” at the time of the offences that he was not running afoul of the law, since the funds were being used for the benefit of the church.

The prosecution, led by Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Christopher Ong, accused Chew of using the criminal motion as a “backdoor appeal”.

“Having knocked on the backdoor once, and having been turned away, he’s now back knocking again,” said DPP Ong.

The prosecution contended that Chew withheld the question in the first application in an attempt to delay the start of his jail sentence by prolonging the matter in court.

DPP Ong said that there was a distinction to be made between new laws and new facts. If Chew’s logic were to be applied, someone committing murder by poison or knife for the first time would be let off the hook, DPP Ong added.

In dismissing Chew’s second application, Judge Phang said, “This second application is not only an abuse of process but is also devoid of merit… this application is out of time.”

Noting that Chew’s earlier application was also dismissed, Judge Phang said that it was “abusive” for Chew to run a fresh application on the same grounds.

“The applicant cannot be allowed to drip-feed his questions through multiple applications of this nature… we wish to reiterate that the criminal reference procedure does not provide a means for backdoor abuse and any attempt to use it as such is abusive.”

When asked by Yahoo News Singapore about his next steps, Chew said, “I am not aware of other possible options”.

“I’m just not happy. I’m not happy with the reasons offered by the judges,” he said.

Chew is out on bail pending the outcome of the prosecution’s appeal against the jail sentences imposed on the six CHC leaders.