Singapore court rejects longer jail term in City Harvest Church fraud case

Justine Lynn reacts after reading a victim impact statement for her daughter Chandler Lynn (not pictured) during the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault, in the Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Michigan, U.S., January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

SINGAPORE: A Singapore court rejected on Thursday a prosecution appeal to reinstate a longer jail sentence for the co-founder of a popular church who was convicted of misusing millions of dollars to support his wife’s pop-singing career.

The ruling ended nearly five years of legal battles by Kong Hee, who co-founded the City Harvest Church, which gripped a city-state where there is little tolerance for corruption and where such cases of fraud mixed with faith have been rare.

Kong, 53, was originally sentenced to eight years in jail in October 2015 for criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts. The High Court reduced that sentence last April to three-and-a-half years.

The prosecution appealed against that decision, asking for the original sentence to be reinstated, but the Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday that the High Court’s decision would remain.

The Court of Appeal also rejected appeals by prosecutors against the sentencing of four other church leaders, who will continue to serve reduced sentences.

Kong was found guilty of misusing S$50 million ($36 million) of church money to fund his wife’s musical career. Domestic media have reported it was the largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore.

The once-glamorous founding pastor of City Harvest, known for his electrifying Sunday services, wore purple prison garb for the court appearance, his hair noticeably greyed.

Kong smiled and acknowledged with a wave more than 50 of his supporters, some of whom had waited outside the court from 6 am (2200 GMT Wednesday).

City Harvest Church preaches a “prosperity gospel” that blends spiritual and material aspirations.

Kong’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun – known as Sun Ho – is famous for a video of her English-language hit “China Wine”, which shows her dancing intimately with rapper Wyclef Jean.

Defense lawyers had said Sun Ho’s music career was used to evangelize. She was not charged in the case.

While megachurches originated in the United States, some of the largest are in Asia, where packaging the traditional biblical message into a more dynamic format of pop music, lively services and social media has lured a new generation of followers and turned the churches into major enterprises.

City Harvest had a congregation of 15,923 and more than 50 affiliations in China, the United States, and seven other countries in 2016, according to its latest annual report.