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Apex court overturns High Court acquittal in corruption case

The ruling throws into question a separate graft case involving former IKEA employee Leng Kah Poh, who also had his conviction reversed by the High Court.

SINGAPORE: In a rare occurrence, a High Court decision to quash a conviction has been overturned by the Court of Appeal.

The ruling by the highest court of the land on Tuesday (Sep 2) on the corruption case of former Seagate Technology International director, Henry Teo Chu Ha, throws into question the fate of a man implicated in a separate graft case.

Both men – the other is Leng Kah Poh, a former IKEA food and beverage manager – had had their convictions reversed by Justice Choo Han Teck, which led to prosecutors seeking clarity from the appellate court on the judge’s interpretation of corruption laws here. The Court of Appeal’s decision on Leng’s case is pending.

Teo had been convicted of 12 counts of corruption after he paid S$6,000 for 20,000 shares in Biforst in 2004, before the firm won contracts with his then-employer. But he successfully appealed against his sentence of six months’ jail and S$576,225 penalty – the amount in dividend payouts he got from Biforst – with Justice Choo noting that the prosecution had not proven that the payment for the shares was a sham.

In its grounds of decision released last week – after the Attorney-General’s Chambers filed a criminal reference on Justice Choo’s interpretation of the Prevention of Corruption Act – the Court of Appeal overruled the High Court judge’s finding, saying the Act covers cleverer and more sophisticated as well as devious schemes, such as in Teo’s case.

Urging the appellate court to restore Teo’s conviction and sentence on Tuesday, Deputy Public Prosecutor David Chew called Teo’s transaction “corrupt to the core” and argued that the court should uphold its power to do what is just to the case. “Just as the court has the power to (overturn) wrongful convictions, it has the power to (overturn) a wrongful acquittal.”

In response, Teo’s lawyer, Mr Bachoo Mohan Singh, said the court had never exercised its power to restore convictions. “If we send an acquitted man back to prison, we would be the first country in the Commonwealth to do this. I don’t think this is a uniqueness we want Singapore to be known for.”

But Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang questioned if it would be just to let the accused walk free: “Are you saying that if in fact your client is guilty and the district judge was correct in his decision, it will be just to say your client can walk away with no sanction at all? Is this what we want to be known for?”

The judge also clarified that in practice, the court has seen it fit to restore convictions and has done so for at least two cases in the recent past.

One of these was Rangasamy Subramaniam’s case in 2011, where the accused’s conviction for drink-driving was reversed on appeal in the High Court, but subsequently restored by the apex court, upon the public prosecutor raising legal questions of public interest in the case.

The court ordered that Teo’s original conviction and sentence stand. Teo is on bail and will have to surrender himself on Sep 16.

In quashing Leng’s conviction, Justice Choo had found that, legally, it was not a case of corruption, as he was one of the masterminds behind the idea to rip off his then-employer. Leng had pocketed S$2.3 million in a plot with two others involving inflated food contracts with a supplier.

Justice Choo’s decision also saw prosecutors raising legal questions of public interest to the appellate court.