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Are sentences in $3 billion money laundering case short relative to the sums involved?: askST

Are sentences in $3 billion money laundering case short relative to the sums involved?: askST

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 20 May 2024
Author: Wong Shiying

So far, six have got jail terms of between 13 and 15 months, sparking public discussion.

Six of the 10 foreigners arrested in the $3 billion money laundering case were recently sentenced to between 13 and 15 months in jail after pleading guilty to their offences in court.

Their sentences have been the subject of public discussion, with some questioning if their jail terms are short relative to the millions of dollars laundered in the case.

Su Wenqiang and Wang Baosen, both 32, were deported to Cambodia on May 6 and banned from re-entering Singapore. With one-third remission, they served two-thirds, or about 8½ months, of their 13-month jail term.

Su Haijin, 41, and Su Baolin, 42, who were each given 14 months’ jail, are likely to be released by end May. Zhang Ruijin, 45, who was handed 15 months’ jail – the highest jail term meted out so far – and Vang Shuiming, 42, who got 13 months and six weeks, will likely be out by June.

The cases of the remaining four suspects – Su Jianfeng, 36; Chen Qingyuan, 34; Wang Dehai, 35; and Lin Baoying, 44 – are pending.

The Straits Times spoke to legal experts and the lawyers who represented the suspects to understand the reasons behind their sentences.

1. Why did the prosecution ask for prison terms of between 12 and 16 months in the six cases?

The prosecution said in its sentencing submissions that a suitably lengthy custodial sentence must be meted out to deter criminals from money laundering offences, as they can undermine Singapore’s reputation as a legitimate financial hub while allowing criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

The prosecution raised similar aggravating factors for all six suspects.

First, their offences have a transnational element, which makes it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to detect and arrest them.

Of the 10 arrested in August 2023 in the anti-money laundering operation, several were involved in illegal gambling businesses abroad and brought suspected criminal proceeds into Singapore.

The substantial sums laundered were another aggravating factor.

Zhang laundered the most money, at $36 million, part of which was suspected to be benefits from falsifying accounts of his business in China.

The prosecution used the case of Singaporean Juandi Pungot as a precedent to determine the length of jail terms sought for the money laundering offences in the $3 billion case.

Juandi was one of the masterminds of the $128 million oil heist from Shell Eastern Petroleum’s Pulau Bukom facility that took place between 2007 and 2018.

He was sentenced to 29 years’ jail in March 2022 for his role in the conspiracy to illegally transfer gas oil out of the facility onto various vessels and sell it at a price lower than its prevailing market value.

Juandi laundered about $3.4 million of the over $5.6 million he made from the scheme by spending it on local and overseas properties, foreign exchange trading, vehicles and investments.

He was sentenced to between 11 and 20 months’ jail for each of his 10 proceeded money laundering charges under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes Act (CDSA).

This range was used as a benchmark by the prosecution for the $3 billion money laundering case.

In Su Wenqiang’s case, the prosecution said the starting indicative sentence for each of his two money laundering charges should be between 18 and 20 months’ jail, as this was the sentence imposed for similar charges in Juandi’s case.

This was shortened to 12 to 15 months’ jail per charge for Su Wenqiang as his case was not as aggravating as Juandi’s in terms of the period of offending, the number of CDSA charges he faced, and the amounts involved in the charges.

A senior district judge sentenced Su Wenqiang to between 12 and 13 months’ jail for each of his money laundering charges.

The sentences were ordered to run concurrently, or at the same time, as they represent a single invasion of the same legally protected interest.

2. Are the sentences short relative to the sums laundered?

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said in a written parliamentary reply on May 8 that the sentences meted out so far in the $3 billion money laundering case are comparable to those in other jurisdictions.

He added that the courts would have considered, among other factors, the suspects’ relatively early plea of guilt and their agreement to forfeit most of their funds to the state.

Mr Shanmugam said: “This has saved public resources by avoiding long-drawn court processes.”

He said the ministry will be tabling a Bill to amend the CDSA to enhance the abilities of law enforcement agencies to pursue and prosecute money launderers.

The Bill will also allow sectoral regulators to access suspicious transaction reports filed by their regulated entities, to better detect money laundering activities.

Defence lawyer Joyce Khoo, who represented Su Baolin, said the suspects’ willingness to forfeit the over $541.9 million in assets so far, among other things, helped to accelerate the investigation process and conclude their cases.

“Considering the number of charges they face and the huge sums involved, such cases can take a long time to investigate,” said the lawyer from Quahe Woo & Palmer.

Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau former director Soh Kee Hean told The Straits Times that fund tracing is challenging as the monies could have been laundered through a complex web of accounts and intermediaries before arriving in Singapore.

“The money could have been routed to and from other countries under the guise of fake investments and trading transactions, or broken up and recombined through shell companies and money mules,” said Associate Professor Soh, who teaches criminal investigation, public safety and security at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Prof Soh added that to get the full picture, the authorities would have to look into other parties involved, such as the suspects’ family members, nominee directors and accountants, which adds to the complexity of the matter.

“As the funds can easily flow across international boundaries, there are also legal issues to be managed,” he said.

Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan said that while the sentences may appear to be light – given the sums of money involved – the suspects were not dealt with lightly.

He said: “After serving their time, the convicted individuals were deported from Singapore and barred from re-entering. It is not a case of them serving less than a year’s jail time and yet retaining their significant assets in Singapore.”

3. What will happen to the surrendered assets?

After the 10 foreigners were arrested, the police took control of assets such as properties, vehicles, luxury bags and watches, and perishable items like alcohol.

Mr Shanmugam said in a written parliamentary reply on May 7 that the police have spent $646,282 for the upkeep of the assets seized in this case. This is covered by the funds and assets forfeited.

The expenses included the cost of hiring experts to oversee the handling, upkeep and value preservation of the assets.

Luxury bags, for example, would need to be kept in a dry and cool environment to keep them from getting mouldy.

Lawyers told ST that a disposal inquiry will likely be held for the court to deal with any contesting claims to the assets, and to decide if the items will be destroyed or auctioned off.

A police spokesman said that with a forfeiture order, non-cash assets may be sold through auctions.

The proceeds of the sale, along with forfeited cash, will then be paid into the Consolidated Fund, which is like a bank account held by the Government.

The revenues of Singapore are paid into this fund, out of which government expenditures are made.

Members of the public can attend such auctions, and they will be subject to checks to ensure that their funds come from legitimate sources.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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