SINGAPORE – In September, former foreign domestic worker Parti Liyani became a household name when she was acquitted of stealing from her wealthy and powerful employer.
She also became a symbol of perceived injustice in the way the less advantaged were treated in the legal system.
The case, which bore the hallmarks of a David and Goliath story, gained prominence as Singaporeans grappled with the question of whether a corporate bigwig held sway over how his maid was investigated and prosecuted.
It snowballed from a seemingly simple case of theft into a marathon nine-hour parliamentary debate last month about the fairness of the criminal justice system.
Ms Parti used to work for former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, who was also on the board of government-linked entities such as infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong and Temasek Foundation.
In October 2016, Mr Liew decided to terminate her employment while he was overseas.
On Oct 28, 2016, his son Karl told Ms Parti that she was fired. Given two hours to pack, she uttered a threat to lodge a complaint with the Manpower Ministry.
Two days later, while she was back in Indonesia, Mr Liew Mun Leong and his son made a police report after the family opened the three boxes that the younger man had agreed to ship to her.
Ms Parti was arrested after she returned to Singapore in December that year.
She was housed by non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), which sought legal representation for her.
Lawyer Anil Balchandani agreed to act for Ms Parti under the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
Charged with stealing more than $50,000 worth of items, including luxury watches and brand-name bags, Ms Parti fought the charges in a State Courts trial that stretched more than 20 days.
She contended that some of the items were found in the trash, some were bought by her and some were given to her.
District Judge Olivia Low did not completely accept the testimony of Karl Liew, who claimed that items such as women’s clothes belonged to him. But she found that the prosecution had proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, and convicted Ms Parti of stealing $34,000 worth of items.
Ms Parti appealed to the High Court. In September, Justice Chan Seng Onn acquitted her of all four charges after concluding that the convictions were unsafe.
Among other things, he found that the police’s delay in visiting the crime scene created a reasonable doubt as to whether the photographs taken by investigators some five weeks later accurately documented the items in the boxes.
He also singled out Karl Liew for his “dishonesty” on the stand.
The circumstances of the case sparked a public outcry, with online chatter dwelling on whether Mr Liew Mun Leong’s social status had biased the initial direction of the case.
Less than a week after Ms Parti’s acquittal, Mr Liew announced his decision to step down from his various positions. He said he respected the court’s decision but stressed he made a police report because he believed it was his civic duty to report suspicions of wrongdoing.
On Nov 4, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spoke in Parliament for more than two hours on the case, providing new information that emerged from an internal review.
He categorically said there was no attempt by anyone to exert influence on the investigators or prosecutors – the Liews’ police report was handled as a routine theft case.
There were also sufficient evidence and good reasons to prosecute Ms Parti, as she had admitted to taking some items of clothing without permission, among other things, he added.
The minister also said lapses were found in the investigation process, and disciplinary action was being taken against the officer concerned and his supervisor.
The House also debated a motion put forward by Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim on improving the criminal justice system after Mr Shanmugam’s statement.
Karl Liew was charged in court the next day with perjury and furnishing false information to the police, offences that carry possible jail terms.
Ms Parti’s four-year legal saga is far from over, although she is now the one in the driver’s seat. The two prosecutors who handled her trial are now the subject of unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against legal service officers.
Her complaint of misconduct centred on how they carried out a demonstration of a faulty DVD player during the court trial.
Ms Parti is also seeking compensation from the Attorney-General’s Chambers for alleged “frivolous or vexatious” prosecution, eschewing the option of approaching the Liews to recoup four years of salary.
Mr Balchandani made it clear that she was not merely after monetary compensation, but was seeking “a nominal amount to show that something went wrong”.
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