Saturday, 30 June 2012

Church’s remarks raise questions

It could be seen as interfering with judicial process, say some lawyers

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Guanyu 道 said...

Church’s remarks raise questions

It could be seen as interfering with judicial process, say some lawyers

By LEONARD LIM and BRYNA SIM
30 June 2012

The unusual move by City Harvest Church to issue a statement dismissing the allegations of misuse of funds before the case has gone to trial has fuelled questions of its intent.

Insiders said the church, now headed by executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain, 39, deemed the statement necessary to allay the concerns of its 30,000 members.

An executive member who has been with the church for more than a decade said City Harvest, in making that strongly worded statement, was seeking to lift the congregation’s spirits and ‘unite them’.

The church’s founding pastor Kong Hee and four others, charged in court on Wednesday, could face lengthy jail terms - even for life - if found guilty.

Lawyers yesterday said that the statement by the church was risky - if not reckless - because it could be construed as interfering with the judicial process.

The statement, posted on the church’s website and sent to the media on Thursday, said the church stood with those involved in the case, including Kong.

It added that church activities were unaffected and that Kong, 47, and his deputy Tan Ye Peng could continue to preach at the church.

The pair have been charged with criminal breach of trust as agents.

They, with three others, are alleged to have funnelled $24 million into sham bond investments to further the music career of Kong’s pop singer wife Ho Yeow Sun, and alleged to have misappropriated a further $26.6 million in church funds to cover up the first amount.

The five have not entered pleas and are due in court on July 25.

What surprised many was that in the City Harvest statement, Mr Aries addressed the allegations and maintained that the church did not lose any funds in the alleged transactions.

He also said the accused did not make any personal profit.

Lawyers interviewed were divided on whether his comments constituted subjudice, a legal concept referring to words or actions that may affect or prejudice the outcome of court proceedings. It is an offence to do so.

The president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore Subhas Anandan said: ‘To address the allegations is subjudice, as the evidence has not been heard in court.’

But others said it is debatable whether Mr Aries’ comments were in contempt of court.

Criminal lawyer R. S. Bajwa said that while the church has said no funds were lost, it remained up to the prosecution to decide if that will be a point of contention.

‘If the prosecution decides to debate on whether restitution was in fact made, then what the church has said would be considered subjudice,’ he said.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers, asked to respond to the church’s statement, said that criminal charges were before the court and that neither the prosecution nor any other party should comment on issues which will be subject to adjudication and on which evidence will be led in court.

The police gave a similar response: ‘Generally, in law, the offence of criminal breach of trust of monies is established once there is misappropriation of the monies with the requisite intent, regardless of whether there have or have not been subsequent attempts at restitution by the accused.’

Meanwhile, church members The Straits Times spoke to said the statement had reassured them and clarified the situation.

Communications manager James Yan, a 31-year-old who has been with the church for more than 10 years, said: ‘The statement was helpful. It did not speculate, but merely clarified certain facts.’