SINGAPORE: A former mosque chairman convicted of siphoning S$371,000 from donations over seven years is "a hero to everyone who needs help", claimed his defence lawyer on Monday (Apr 15).
Making a case for his client to get no more than a year's jail, a third of the maximum three years' jail the prosecution is asking for, defence lawyer Satwant Singh told the court that his client had used most of the money to help the needy.
Ab Mutalif Hashim, 58, pleaded guilty to six charges of criminal breach of trust last month, with another eight charges taken into consideration.
He admitted to taking the cash from donations at the Masjid Darussalam mosque in Commonwealth Avenue West between 2006 and 2013.
However, his lawyer on Monday told the judge that Ab Mutalif had spent "most of the money" - between S$67,000 and S$84,000 - helping the needy, ranging from homeless families and schoolchildren to foreign workers.
Mr Singh said his client started a "24-hour mosque" service, which needed money to run. He claimed that the many people Ab Mutalif helped in his role as chairman of the mosque management board looked up to him "as a hero".
ACCUSED A HERO IN DISGUISE: DEFENCE
"They look up to my client as a hero that comes in the disguise of chairman of a Muslim mosque," said Mr Singh. "Whenever they needed any help, he was there. Some of those people he helped have come to court many times - two Bangladeshi workers have come every single time, they look up to my client."
He added that other mosques would refer those in need to Masjid Darussalam, where Ab Mutalif was chairman of the mosque management board between 2003 and 2010, before continuing as voluntary chairman for another three years.
"Yes, he had taken the money from the mosque, but he expended these monies on them," said Mr Singh, referring to those in need. "We all know if you ask for monies you have to fill out many forms and basically there is red tape."
He claimed that his client gave S$1,500 for the burial of a young girl who was killed, and tendered multiple testimonials from people he said Ab Mutalif helped.
"The society may view him as a villain but I believe he is a hero in many people's eyes," continued the lawyer. "A hero to everyone who needs help - mothers, daughters, sons."
He added that Ab Mutalif also paid S$130,000 to renovate the toilets at Masjid Darussalam, urging the court to take it into consideration.
"No more than a year's jail should be sufficient," said the lawyer. "My client has been a role model and he has got no previous conviction, except I think (once) a long, long time ago. Other than that, he's a pillar of society, I would say a role model, and he has done good work for the community. There are many articles written about him, about the mosque."
CHARITABLE ACTS WERE BY MOSQUE, NOT ACCUSED: PROSECUTOR
In response, Deputy Public Prosecutor Kenneth Chin argued that there is a need to distinguish between the charitable acts of the mosque and those of Ab Mutalif, without conflating the two.
"In the mitigation plea, we see many articles about the charitable acts undertaken by the mosque," he said. "It's not disputed that the mosque has undertaken a lot of charitable work and many people are grateful to the mosque."
However, he added that this was done by the mosque "as an entity where collective decisions are taken".
"Should credit be given to the accused solely for the acts undertaken by the mosque? We say not, your honour," argued the prosecutor. "The decisions taken by the mosque are done by the mosque management board. And herein lies the problem - we are here today because the accused decided to go on his own frolic. He decided to take monies from the mosque with no accountability.
"He decided who to give the monies to, he decided when and how much to give, with no accountability," said the prosecutor. "There are proper regulations and procedures in place to decide who should be given monies and who should not."
He dismissed the claims by the defence lawyer, saying that the multiple assertions are "bare assertions without proof".
"Is this a situation where the accused took monies to help the needy, with most of the monies spent on them? Or is it a situation where the accused took so much money that he felt bad and decided to give some back to the people who might need them?" asked the prosecutor.
"He who asserts must prove and we do not have proof that all of the monies were spent on the needy," he said, adding that it was clear from the statement of facts admitted to by Ab Mutalif that money was channelled to a company where the accused was a director, drawing a monthly salary of S$7,000.
The prosecution and defence locked horns over the issue of the toilet renovations - with the prosecutor asserting that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) had not approved the renovations, and the defence saying that MUIS had given the go-ahead.
District Judge Ong Chin Rhu adjourned the sentencing to next week, as she said "this is a rather unique case" and she needed some time to arrive at a decision.