Activist Kokila Annamalai: Former domestic worker Parti Liyani’s case ‘a cautionary tale’ about ‘lack of due process’ for accused migrant workers in S’pore’s criminal justice system

While the High Court’s decision to acquit former domestic worker Parti Liyani may be seen as “redemptive”, her case serves as “a cautionary tale” to other accused migrant workers about the possible “lack of due process” for them in the Singapore criminal justice system, said activist Kokila Annamalai.

She was previously found guilty of stealing over S$34,000 worth of items belonging to Changi Airport Group (CAG) chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.

Justice Chan Seng Onn, in allowing Ms Parti’s appeal against her conviction and jail sentence of two years and two months, branded the Liew family as having “improper motives” against Ms Parti.

In a Facebook post on Friday (4 September), Ms Kokila — citing Justice Chan’s findings — questioned how the Liew family will be held accountable for purportedly having framed Ms Parti.

“If, in fact, they framed Liyani, as her defense team argued, how will they be held accountable for this? Karl Liew’s testimony was described by the judge as “highly suspect” – but will he have to account for his actions? What does reparations for four years of Yani’s life look like, and who will provide it?” She stressed.

Ms Kokila also highlighted how Ms Parti was arrested upon arrival for alleged theft of the items when she returned to Singapore to seek new employment.

Ms Parti was subsequently subjected to hours of questioning using dubious evidence such as “blurry, black-and-white images of the items she was accused of stealing” and was not provided with a translator at the time her statements were recorded by the police, Ms Kokila noted.

The activist also criticised the police’s alleged failure to conduct an independent evaluation of the cost of items Ms Parti was accused of stealing and their decision to accept the Liew family’s valuation, such as how a broken watch was valued at the guesstimated price of a new watch.

“Yani’s original sentence of 2 years and 2 months was because the value of these items was accepted by the court, despite the defense presenting expert witnesses who testified otherwise,” said Ms Kokila.

The decision to prosecute Ms Parti, in fact, was questionable, given that there were breaks in the chain of custody and that the items never left the Liew residence the entire time, she added.

“Will the AGC be asked to explain their decision to prosecute her? Why did District Judge Olivia Low find her guilty last year, and give her such a long sentence?” Ms Kokila questioned.

Noting that non-government organisation Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Ms Parti’s pro bono defence team — led by her counsel Anil Balchandani — had “poured a lot of scarce resources into” her welfare while she was unable to work in the last four years, Ms Kokila said: “What is the state’s responsibility towards vulnerable individuals who might be victims of malicious prosecution?”

“If a migrant worker is required to stay in Singapore for legal proceedings, either as a witness to a case, or because they’ve been charged with an offense, what is the state and society’s duty of care towards them?

“Yani has spent the last almost four years at the HOME shelter, unable to work. If HOME had not found someone to put up her bail ($15,000!), both when she was initially charged and after she was convicted, pending appeal, she would have spent 3 years and 9 months in jail.

“If HOME and her pro bono lawyer Anil Balchandani (what a star!) had not fought alongside Yani for years, finding the money to hire expert witnesses, finding the courage to go up against a daunting system and a powerful family, Yani’s chances at clearing her name and staying out of prison would have been terribly slim,” She stressed.

Ms Kokila urged for reforms to be made to Singapore’s criminal justice system in light of the “incalculable harm” inflicted against Ms Parti and her loved ones as a result of her prosecution and conviction.

“Countless migrant workers confess to crimes they didn’t commit and serve time in prison because they don’t believe they can get justice, and because it can take longer to fight the case than to serve the time.

“We might see Yani’s case as redemptive, but it is a cautionary tale to many workers about how long and hard one has to fight – without income, without freedoms, without being able to see your family, and against a bureaucratic, intimidating system,” said Ms Kokila.

Mr Anil today told the High Court that he will apply for compensation to be paid to Ms Parti in the wake of her unemployment for the last four years as a result of the case.

In the previous hearing on Ms Parti’s appeal against her sentence on 1 November last year, Mr Anil submitted to the High Court before Justice Chan that Judge Low had “completely erred” in accepting certain evidence put forth from the prosecution’s end, and for her to “just carve out what was convenient for her” in relation to the items included in the charge.

“Although allowable under Section 138 … of the CPC, it did a grave injustice to the defence, because the defence could only prove certain items and to establish her credibility,” he said.

Mr Anil pointed out that consent was given to Ms Parti for some of the items, while some others were “actually owned and purchased” by the former domestic worker herself.

Ms Parti’s lawyer submitted that Mr Karl had previously claimed to have bought kitchen utensils in 2002 in the UK, and a family member had attempted to corroborate this claim by testifying that Ms Parti had helped Mr Karl unpack them when he returned to Singapore in 2002.

However, Parti was only employed by Mr Liew in 2007, Mr Anil pointed out. Further, she was able to identify the pricing and dates of purchase pertaining to the utensils, as she was the one who had purchased most of them at a secondhand store, except for one bought using NTUC rewards.

An independent witness named Ms Teo had testified that a black handle knife that was part of the kitchen utensils in dispute above could only have been made in 2006, speaking from the perspective of the manager and director of Jarmay Enterprises, the firm that made the knife.

Judge Low, however, had decided to set aside Ms Teo’s evidence as the latter had alleged harassment from the defence lawyer despite only having been issued a writ to attend court once, according to Mr Anil.

Further, Mr Anil highlighted that the utensils were stored “in a box covered with a sheet” at “the back of the house”.

If Karl claimed they were his, he could have taken them back or taken them because they were his, argued Mr Anil and noted that Mr Karl had not done anything regarding the kitchen items for 14 years.

Mr Anil also highlighted that a quilt cover from IKEA belonging to Ms Parti has the same pattern as a bedsheet Mr Karl said he had bought at Habitat in the United Kingdom as a student.

The lawyer argued that his client had, in fact, bought both the quilt cover and the bedsheet, and was able to provide information on the price, location and the approximate time she bought the items.

Mr Anil argued that it was wrong for Judge Low to have removed the quilt cover from the list of items in Ms Parti’s charge — the District Judge reasoned that it was not an item of men’s clothing — as doing so does not address his client’s reasonable evidence regarding the matching IKEA quilt cover and bedsheet.

Judge Low, according to Mr Anil, even said that it needs to be proven that “Habitat does not sell IKEA items”, which to the lawyer is an indication that the judge “was not accepting facts that are before her”.

Mr Karl, said Mr Anil, had also lied about two wallets previously included in Ms Parti’s charge, and said they were given by his relatives.

However, the lawyer pointed out that Mr Karl was unable to answer other questions regarding the wallets, which Judge Low had acknowledged.

His client, on the other hand, said that the wallets were given by her domestic worker friend Dia Kapi, the latter of whom testified that she bought them at Takashimaya and Paragon. Ms Dia was also able to identify certain tears in the wallets.

Pointing out that Mr Karl is “not a stranger” to the judicial process, Mr Anil also referred to a 2017 case the younger Liew was involved in where he was found liable of deceit making false representations to businessman Alan Zhou about the latter’s investments in China.

Mr Karl was a business partner of Mr Zhou at the time.

Justice Audrey Lim said in 2018 that she found Mr Karl “to be a dishonest and evasive witness whose evidence was riddled with inconsistencies”.

She found that contrary to Karl’s claim that Mr Zhou had transferred the investment funds without his prior approval, he was in fact “aware of the transactions and money transfers… as he was copied”.

Mr Anil argued that Justice Lim had found him to be an unreliable witness, as stated in her written judgement. His client, on the other hand, has been consistent in her evidence and was largely able to recall details regarding the price of the items.

Mr Anil also alleged that the police report filed by the Liews against Ms Parti — a few days after she left the country — was possibly made due to Ms Parti expressing her intention to make a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower regarding her illegal deployment at Mr Karl’s home at 39 Chancery Lane and his office at Killiney Road.

Mr Karl had purportedly asked Ms Parti to clean his house at 39 Chancery Lane, which Mr Karl resided with Ms Heather and their children after they had moved out of Mr Liew’s family home at 49 Chancery Lane in Mar 2016.

In addition, Ms Parti was also asked to clean Mr Karl’s office in Killiney Road at a point of time for a period of a year until the office closed.

This was again the case when Ms Parti was asked to do outside Mr Liew’s family home for Karl’s home and told Mrs Liew that the workload was “too much” for her. A week or two afterwards, Ms Parti’s employment was terminated.

“That is something that we believe would have hurt the Liews’ interest, a complaint [by Ms Parti to MOM],” Mr Anil charged.

Ms Parti, on the other end, “is a vulnerable person” defined within Singapore laws, and “is not in any position to make assertions”.

When prompted by Justice Chan as to what form the remuneration took and to what extent Ms Parti was compensated for her work in the aforementioned places, Mr Foo said that she was paid around S$20 to S$30.

The judge further probed if the amount was meant for one day, to which Mr Foo replied that it was “for the service performed in question”.

Justice Chan responded with an analogy to illustrate whether the remuneration made for Ms Parti’s additional workload was fair: “$20 to perform 100 hours of work is peanuts”.

He suggested that the value of compensation must be reasonable, putting aside the issue of whether the work Ms Parti was asked to do was legal.

Background of the case

Ms Parti was convicted in March last year of stealing items belonging to Mr Liew and his family — his son Karl Liew in particular — after her employment was terminated on 28 Oct 2016 and before being repatriated to Indonesia. Mr Liew had asked Mr Karl to oversee the termination and repatriation process as the former was abroad at the time.

During the District Court trial, Mr Liew had testified that he suspected Ms Parti of stealing for years when he discovered that certain items went missing at his Chancery Lane house.

Ms Parti’s termination was made purportedly after she had stolen a portable power bank gifted to him by a university in France that had invited him to give a guest lecture back in 2015.

Prior to being sent back to her home country, Ms Parti was given only two hours to pack her belongings despite having worked for the family for almost nine years.

Mr Liew subsequently reported the purported theft on 30 October the same year after returning to Singapore. Less than two months later, Ms Parti was arrested at Changi Airport on 2 December upon her return to Singapore.

District Judge Olivia Low sentenced Ms Parti to two years and two months of jail, following which Ms Parti made her appeal against the conviction and the jail sentence.

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