Singaporean in megachurch fraud charged for trying to flee jail sentence

SINGAPORE:  A Singapore church official convicted in a multimillion-dollar fraud case was charged again in court on Thursday after trying to flee the city-state on a boat a day before he was to begin serving a reduced jail sentence.

The five-year long legal battle that mixed fraud and faith had gripped the wealthy southeast Asian island, where there is little tolerance of corruption.

Chew Eng Han, who was the treasurer of the City Harvest Church and an investment manager, had hired a boat to escape to neighbouring Malaysia, a trip of less than an hour, when he was arrested by the coast guard on Wednesday, Singapore police said.

Chew was arrested "for attempting to leave Singapore illegally," the police said in a statement, adding that their investigation continued.

Chew and another man were arrested in a motor boat off the island of Pulau Ubin north of Singapore. Chew had S$5,000 in cash, the police said. Singapore media said the pair claimed to have been fishing when questioned.

Chew, who is in custody, could not be reached for comment. Reuters could not immediately contact his lawyer to seek comment.

Chew was among six church leaders convicted in October 2015 of misusing millions of dollars to support the pop-singing career of the wife of a church co-founder. She was not charged in the case.

Chew was to have begun serving a sentence of three years and four months, which had been cut from six years on appeal.

Earlier in February, a Singapore court rejected a prosecution appeal to reinstate longer jail terms for the church leaders, after they were cut by the High Court in April 2017.

Chew and the other accused all had their sentences cut nearly in half, prompting public criticism and a pledge by the government to amend a law that led to the shorter sentences.

The 57-year-old Chew had been allowed to stay outside of prison on bail until after the Lunar New Year so that he could spend time with family, his lawyer told the court last month.

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, its latest annual report shows.