SINGAPORE – To make their sham marriage look genuine, a Singaporean groom would be flown to Vietnam for a wedding photo shoot with his Vietnamese bride.

In some instances, the “groom” was also told to meet the “bride” at the Singapore airport in case there were issues with immigration.

The “grooms” in most cases also had changed their NRIC addresses to reflect that of the residences of the “brides”.

Some of the couples also lived together for short periods of time, all in the same unit, so that the “grooms” could familiarise themselves with the place and prove that the marriage was genuine if questioned.

These were the tactics employed by a syndicate in covering up an elaborate web of sham marriages – involving six couples and two masterminds – that took investigators from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) six months to solve.

This syndicate makes up part of the 53 people convicted last year for sham marriages, a number which has gone up 23.3 per cent from 43 in 2016.

The increase, however, comes after a downward trend that followed an amendment to the Immigration Act in 2012 to criminalise such marriages. In 2013 there were 284 cases.

Typically, sham marriages are discovered in isolation and involve a “straightforward” transaction between the “couple” and sometimes a marriage broker.

It looked to be the case when one of the grooms involved in the syndicate appealed against the repatriation of his “wife”.

But ICA looked at the appeal more carefully and realised there could be certain elements of marriage of convenience, said Superintendent (Supt) Maran Subrahmaniyan, 47, who is deputy director of ICA’s enforcement division.

Investigations began which led officers to discover five more marriages of convenience and uncovered one of the biggest sham marriages syndicates here.

“We had to connect the dots to find out the exact narrative and that led us to discover that there was more than one couple. It started with just one, but eventually we managed to get the five other (couples) involved,” he told The Straits Times.

Superintendent Maran Subrahmaniyan, deputy director of Enforcement Division in ICA, whose team busted a sham marriage syndicate in 2017.  ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

A total of 14 people were part of the syndicate though only 12 – six men and six women – were arrested as one “bride” had been repatriated for other offences and another “bride” had left Singapore before ICA investigations commenced in July 2017.

The Singaporean men, aged between 24 and 57, had entered into the sham marriages for monetary rewards, while the Vietnamese women, aged between 23 and 34, wanted to prolong their stay in Singapore to work at vice-related jobs, said ICA officers who helped crack the case.

Among the 12, 10 – including masterminds Singaporean Adrian Kin Zheng Keat, 37, and Vietnamese national Ho Thi Be Ba, 31 – have been jailed for terms ranging from six to 18 months.

Court proceedings for the remaining two – Chua Rui Xiang, age unknown, and Tran Thi Ngoc Thu, 23 – are ongoing.

Kin, who was unemployed, had been involved in the brokering of all six sham unions – and played a part in facilitating marriages for both the Singaporean men and Vietnamese women.

Ho, a beautician, had taken part in three of the unions, and was also sentenced for harbouring three of the couples at an apartment in Balestier.

Court documents said that Kin and Ho were acquainted through Kin’s Vietnamese girlfriend.

Two of the “grooms” in the sham marriages – Chua and Wong Kean Mun Alex – had also gone on to help broker other sham marriages.

The “couples” include Liu Jianwei Andrew and Vo Thi Ngoc Thao; Wong and Le Thi Cam Tien; Kang Ah Hock and Nguyen Thi Bich Dan; Chan Teng Seng and Tran, Choy Yong Hui Elvison and Nguyen Thi Kim Pha; and Chua and ‘Ha’.

The Singaporean men were promised between $3,000 and $5,000 for each union, and $100 to $300 for each successful extension of the women’s visit passes.

The foreign spouses each paid about $20,000 to the brokers for the marriage.

As the complicated web differs from traditional marriage of convenience cases, it was a challenge to piece the information together, said Deputy Superintendent (DSP) Liew Shi Xiong, 32.

“In most immigration offences you might have evidence like travel documents or passports. In other kinds of offences you might have identifiable witnesses or CCTV footage.

“But for (marriage of convenience) cases we do not have such evidence. So ICA officers put in a lot of effort and had to get innovative in our investigation,” said DSP Liew, a lead investigation officer.

He was unable to elaborate on the “innovative” ways due to operational issues, but said that given the nature of complex cases, teamwork is definitely an important factor.

To get to the bottom of sham marriages, officers also do extensive interviews with family members of the accused, who are sometimes shocked to hear that the individual is married.

It is also no mean feat to see through the cover stories that the “couples” come up with, said Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Muhammad Izzat Abdul Rahman, 29.

Supt Maran said: “We can’t take things at face value. When we do interviews we try to probe and get more info.”

ASP Muhammad Izzat, who was also a lead investigation officer on the case, said that Singaporean spouses who enter sham marriages come from all age groups, but are all drawn to commit the crime because of the promise of money.

“The Singaporean spouse is normally in financial difficulty and this is something the arranger (of the sham marriage) picks up on.”

Supt Maran said that because marriage is highly sensitive and customary practices, like dowry systems, might come into play, every case is looked at with a “different lens”.

“Marriage of convenience is easy to commit, you just need to be of legal marriage age. But it doesn’t pay,” said Supt Maran.

“We are always there to ensure the marriage is not abused for the purposes of gaining an immigration advantage… You can run, but you can’t hide from us, we will get you.”

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